Seeing Zionism at last

From “A land with a people”, Monthly Review Press, 2021.

Tzvia Thier

“I was born in Romania during the Second World War. When I was six. in the wake of the Holocaust, my family immigrated to Israel. There, I grew up in Tel Aviv, spent years in a kibbutz, and was part of a “socialist Zionist” youth movement called HaShomer HaTzair. While serving in the army, I volunteered to teach in the Negev, mainly immigrants from North Africa. I continued as a teacher and a principal until I moved to the United States, where I taught at a Jewish day school and created curricula for Jewish and Zionist organisations. In 1995, I moved back to Israel and lived in Jerusalem. I was a liberal Zionist and felt strongly connected to Israel. I believed that Israel should withdraw from the Occupied Territories and blamed the settlements and the settlers for the occupation. I was against wars, racism and discrimination, and felt that I had good values. I did not know that I lived behind an invisible wall. I did not know how much I did not know.”


(as a child) We had bible studies three to five hours a week in the second through twelfth grades. The Bible was used as a historical document that gave us, the Jewish people, the right to live in the promised land. In other words, a secular society was using a great collection of ancient writings, putting God in the position of real estate agent.

We learned how the Holocaust survivors came to rebuild their lives in Israel. The fact that the Europeans had commited these horrible crimes, yet the indigenous in Palestine were the ones paying for them, did not cross my mind. Arabs were described as primitive cowards who took off their shoes and ran away. Or they were described as cruel people, hosting you nicely, but when you turn to leave, stabbing you in the back. We were told only the Zionist narrative, as expressed in Israeli literature, poetry, songs history and ceremonies. That is, only the Askhenazi Israeli narrative. The expulsion of some 750.000 Palestinians, and over four hundred villages that were razed to the ground and replaced by Jewish towns, villages and kibbutzim, or by JNF forests and parks, were not part of the story. I learned that, in the struggle over Palestine, my enemies were Arabs and the British, I belonged to a particular society, and I knew who I was. It was my identity.

Through most of my life, I did not have any contact with Palestinians, not one friend, acquaintance, or neighbor. The Palestinians were on the dark side of the moon. I never went to Arab towns, definitely not to the West Bank or Gaza (before the blockade). Sometimes, while driving to the north, I would stop at one of the Arab restaurants located along the roads to eat some good Arabic food. I lived in Jerusale, the “united Jerusalem”, where 40 percent are Palestinians (residents, not citizens). I never went to Occupied East Jerusalem. I saw Palestinians cleaning the streets, planting flowers to beautify my city, working on building construction, carrying products in the supermarkets, and washing dishes in the restaurants, but I really did not see them.


(Sheikh Jarrah, 2009): And.. I was afraid. My daugther, Daphna, insisted on going there. I joined her. I had to protect her. Together, we found Sheikh Jarrah. This was the first time in my life – at the age of 65, after living in Israel for 59 years – that I had a conversation with Palestinians! I realized that it was not my daughter who needed protection, but the Palestinians. My journey had begun. Sheikh Jarrah was my doorway to end the fear. I joined the weekly protests on Friday afternoons, where I met Palestinians and Jewish-Israeli activists. It was then that I started my inquiry. I wanted to see, I wanted to know. My first tour was with the left advocacy group Ir Amim, to East Jerusalem. I was shocked. It is a third-world city. In this “united Jerusalem”, the Palestinian neigborhoods don´t look like the Jerusalem in which I lived. We were driving on narrow, bumpy, unpaved roads with no sidewalks. The schools we saw were very poor and inadequately staffed and resourced. There were no playgrounds, and the piled-up garbage was rarely collected.

(the author also joins Machsom Watch, a group that monitors soldiers and police at checkpoints – “the Palestinians are .. processed like a herd of animals” – and visits Hebron: “I felt anger, shame, sadness and pain”.)

It has been hard work to examine my own mind. Many questions leave me wondering how I could have not thought about them before. My solid identity was shaken and then broken. I have been an eyewitness to the systematic oppression, humiliation, racism, cruelty, and hatred by “my people” toward the “others”. And what you finally see, you can no longer unsee.”

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