Tameem Shaltoni and I (Marilyn Garson) had exchanged some comments on social media. We met for the first time in May, when I drove past his town. We brought our coffees to a park and sat down with all the history, emotion and potential that Palestinians and Jews bring. Our meetings are vital and charged, and we decided to get to know each other in writing. We speak only for ourselves. Indeed, this is about what happens when we meet as individuals who wish to do more than be polite.
Tameem: I have to admit, this is the first time I engage in a face to face dialogue about Palestine with a Jew.
The expulsion of my family from Palestine to clear the way for Jewish settlers in the shadows of WWII severed our lives and traumatised us. Based on where I grew up and what my family went through, it was unthinkable to co-exist with Jews, let alone co-resist! But here we are, I’m glad that we are talking and letting our different worlds clash.
Marilyn: So am I. Jeff Halper writes about ‘bridging conversations’ in his book, Decolonizing Israel – Liberating Palestine. We have to find ways to be ourselves – to bring our identities into a conversation that imagines liberation from our real, historical starting points. Our questions and the trust we build are the bridges that we need to cross.
Tameem: As a Palestinian, Palestine to me is embodied in the holy city of Al-Quds (Jerusalem), and Al-Aqsa mosque is the centre of my universe. Al-Aqsa mosque is the only name I’ve ever known that place as. As a Jew, Marilyn, what does Al-Quds (Jerusalem) mean to you?
Marilyn: Jerusalem is an integral part of my religious history and imagination. It holds great emotion for me. A Muslim or a Christian can say the same thing, but you cannot go the place we both love. I once drove to Jerusalem with a Gazan colleague. I have visited over the course of nearly half a century, while she who lives two hours away was seeing the Al-Aqsa mosque for the first time in her life.
Jerusalem will always be plural for me: ours. I believe that the layers of Jerusalem need to be loved and shared by all of us. A society that loves religions – plural – and is governed by and for all of its citizens would be a far more Jewish place than this apartheid Israel.
I think that some Jews fear your love for Al-Quds. They fear that you must want to turn the tables and exclude or harm Jews as you have been harmed. If there were to emerge a decent and dignified society between the river and the sea in which Palestinians play a full role, can you imagine sharing the center of your universe?
Tameem: Yes absolutely. Exclusionary thinking is a big part of why we are here now, and two wrongs don’t make it right. I respect the different layers of perspectives of Jerusalem, and I believe in a permanent solution based on inclusiveness and right to belief(s).
As part of a reconciliation process, we also need to have honest conversations based on evidence and historical facts to understand those different layers and work through reasonable solutions to share and co-exist, and when I say ‘honest’, I mean honest to ourselves first and to each other. At the moment, the atmosphere is too politically loaded to have meaningful conversations about the shape of a permanent solution, and I believe there’s a lot of disinformation going around. This brings me to my next question.
What does ‘being indigenous’ mean to you and what part of the world -if any- do you think you indigenous of?
Marilyn: I’m not indigenous to Palestine, nor to the Eastern European places from which my grandparents fled, nor Canada (where I was born) nor Aotearoa where I live as tauiwi. I’m a citizen, and I live my Jewish life where I live. I am loving the recent flowering of Diasporist Judaism like mine.
Because I am neither Palestinian nor Israeli, the shape of solutions is not my brief. Foreigners don’t draw the maps. We build the pressure that requires change.
Tameem: The history of Jews’ persecution for thousands of years is horrific, let alone the Holocaust which is the worst crime I’ve ever heard of. What I often hear from Israelis and Jews in particular is; my family’s expulsion from Palestine is a natural outcome of the Holocaust and Jews’ persecution, which to me is absurd of course. How do you relate between the Holocaust and Jewish persecution, and Palestine and the Palestinians?
Marilyn: I think Israel was the product of an intentional settler-colonial project, an overwhelming moment of genocide and shock, and a whole array of visions. There was Jewish support and Jewish opposition but the fact is that my antecedents took the homes of yours. That act lies unsettled since the birth of Israel. That act did not resolve the horror of the Holocaust, and it initiated a second national trauma. Your family’s expulsion was neither natural nor acceptable. Until we acknowledge and transform that, until the cycle of trauma and response is broken, the Palestinian Nakba will be a living event in the present tense.
Working with child survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, with Afghan women and in Gaza, I have known people who lived their lives trapped within their trauma, and people who transcended it. I have known child soldiers – profoundly victimised – who learned with difficulty not to beat their own children as adults. It did not diminish their childhood horror for the adult to break the cycle from victim to abuser. Everyone needs to do that.
Tameem: Let’s talk about antisemitism. By the way, not many people know that as a Palestinian Arab, I am Semite too! I’m being told that demanding justice for what happened to my family and my people is antisemitic. Do you feel threatened by my Palestinian identity and activism?
Marilyn: I was raised to deny your existence. I have had to confront and learn from that – learn to meet my cousins. I think we both need to distinguish our identities from others who use the same labels differently. Occupation is not my Judaism but it is the Judaism of some. Palestinian resistance is not about Jewishness but it can be a pretext for some people who hate Jews. As I understand it, Palestinian resistance is an assertion of our full, equal human and political rights. That is no threat to me; on the contrary, that’s the world in which I wish to live.
But to be honest, I do feel uncertain as we begin. I love being a Jew while generations of your family have been shaped and harmed by a system built for Jewish privilege. You – not I – have the emotional initiative when we meet: you tell me what occupation means. You have a right to fierce emotions, and I need to really hear you if I am to support your work to obtain justice.
Tameem: I tried to express how I feel, and I had thought the words failed me. Now I think what I have been trying to describe is numbness, and it makes sense no one can define nothingness. Let me instead tell you my story.
As my family’s tragic story goes, an army of Jewish nationalists came to our town, committed a massacre, then went from door to door and got every single human, men, women, children, and elderly to leave town on foot with no food, water, or anything, threw us in a refugees camp and never let us return to our home, then confiscated our house, our land, our workplace, and all of our belongings, and let Jewish settlers from Europe and Middle East move into our house and assumed our previous life right in front of our eyes, and if that was not enough, they tried to erase our identity, deny our history and our plight, and called us a terrorist anti-semite if we dare to fight back.
Because it is an exclusive Jewish nationalist program that devastated me and my people in the name of the world Jewry and you, I believe the world Jewry has a collective moral responsibility to speak up and drive a change from within in parallel to our Palestinian own struggle for justice, dignity, liberty and self-determination. A change from within the Jewish structures could be the best outcome and least violent for the ongoing struggle, and to be clear, a moral responsibility doesn’t mean that all Jews are accountable for the actions of Israeli governments.
To me, a Jewish self-determination right is a matter for the Jewish people, and my only problem with the current manifestation of it in the form of Zionism and colonisation of Palestine is it came on the expense of me and Palestinians.
I just have no respect whatsoever for anyone who is involved in this horrendous crime, from the perpetrators to the Jewish settlers who don’t have a problem in living our stolen lives.
Marilyn: I am sorry for the history that has left you numb. I really hope that you find sources of joy, and company, to lift some of that numbness.
You’ve said something else that we must unpack – “in the name of.” It would be misleading and embittering to take those claims at face value. White supremacists justify racist violence by saying that they act in the name of all White people, who are under threat from people of colour and others. They make that claim, but any reasonable White person will disavow it in disgust.
When Zionist settler colonialism is justified in the name of all Jews, you should hear their claim the same way. They have no such mandate. Every Jew who says “not in my name” is repeating that those claims are illegitimate.
Everyone who believes in our equal humanity has an obligation to help generate the pressure for change, but I agree with you that Jews have an additional obligation because they are using our names. We cannot be bystanders, because that’s a passive permission for the project to continue.
Tameem: I admire you Marilyn for choosing not to take advantage of the privilege which Israel’s apartheid gave you based on your Jewish identity.
Marilyn: And I admire you for telling every difficult story. Wherever I have worked, war imposed crazy consequences on people because of their identities: these ones were made refugees, those enslaved, dispossessed, marked for death. Personal stories remind us that the big Nakba consists of terrible individual choices and ongoing consequences like those of your family. Those are the histories by which you earn your Right of Return.
There is no substitute for your voice. We hear you as a human being and we know this isn’t right. We enlist in the work of setting it right because we aspire to live in a world of justice.
Tameem: I can’t find peace and co-exist with what happened without establishing justice. Justice is one of the key principles in a civilised society, without justice laws don’t have any meaning, and life falls apart. Justice is the first step in ‘getting along’ and co-existence. Without justice, co-existence is a bitter capitulation that’s waiting to explode. Remember treaty of Versailles.
Marilyn: Well said: there is no getting along without justice. Neither of our peoples is going to be free of this until we are both free.
And what you think when people want to get along without really challenging the nature of co-existence?
Tameem: It’s the difference between getting real, and lying to ourselves. When we don’t seek justice, we are accepting injustice as a normal tenet of society. Justice is probably the only principle that everyone, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, believes that it must be served with no limit at all the times and in all the places and situations. Unless someone can convince me why I shouldn’t seek justice, then the only real help a friend can offer is to seek justice.
At the end, we can say so much only in the time we’ve got today, and I had enough sandfly bites anyway! so it’s the time to say ka kite ano.
June 9, 2022
Tameem Shaltoni and Marilyn Garson