Dear Mr. Avraham Burg:
I woke up to news earlier this month that I had to read several times because I was not sure at first if I was understanding it correctly: You had announced your plan to submit an affidavit to the Jerusalem District Court, renouncing your registration as a Jew with Israel’s Interior Ministry. In your statement, you said your conscience does not allow you to be classified as a member of a Jewish nation, because it implies “belonging to the group of the masters.”
This is a bold, courageous and risky action for any Israeli. But you are not just any Israeli: You chaired the Jewish Agency (1995-1999), were speaker of the 15th Knesset (1999-2003), and served as Israel’s acting president between the resignation of Ezer Weizman and the election of Moshe Katsav to that post. As a writer for Haaretz said, “No resumé could be more Zionist and Jewish.”
I don’t need to live in Israel or to be Jewish to understand the degree of criticism you now face. And as a Palestinian who grew up under the thumb of my Israeli “masters,” and whose oldest brother was killed by an Israeli missile, I want to say thank you. If a just, peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is ever possible, it will be because of leaders like you.
In my own way, I too am trying to break through barriers by reaching out to the other side. Last year, I partnered with a group of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who have renounced Zionism (which I define as the belief in a Jewish state, thus disenfranchising Palestinians). The group tranlstes essays about life in Gaza from We Are Not Numbers into Hebrew for an online platform called BorderGone. Our hope is that these stories will reach all types of Israelis and create a greater understanding of the impact of their country’s racist policies.
A few months ago, I was asked to talk to a new group of BorderGone volunteers. I started with a story already familiar to them, but this time with a different point—one that I think illustrates the importance of the work they do on Bordergone. It was the story of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for transporting thousands of Italian Jews into ghettos, from whence they were taken to and executed in concentration camps. Thousands of men, women, elderly and children were killed by the Nazis just because they were born with Jewish blood. When the war ended, Eichmann was captured by U.S. troops but managed to escape. Decades later, in 1960, he was apprehended by the Mossad and Shinbet and brought to Israel to stand trial on 15 criminal charges. Eichmann did not deny his participation in the ethnic cleansing of Jews; he justified his crimes by saying he "was simply following orders." That excuse was not accepted by the court and he was executed by hanging in 1962. This is one of the few Israeli actions with which I agree: “Just following orders” should never be an acceptable excuse for abuse and murder of any scale. Thus, my message to the group was the importance of defying their own government today
One of the participants replied that all Israeli Jews learn this story in school. Israeli children are taught that those who committed war crimes against their kin will be punished even if it takes a lifetime or more. For this purpose, the heroic Mossad goes on missions around the globe to hunt down those who are implicated in such crimes against humanity that involve Jews.
This experience triggered a wave of questions about the Israeli education system. What else do the children learn at school? What do they learn about Palestinians and Muslims?
When I was 6 years old, my father, who used to work in construction in Israel, came home in the evening after a very long day at work. His exhaustion did not stop him from recounting a conversation he had with his Israeli boss: "We Jews are the masters of the world and you Arabs are our slaves. God created Jews in the form of humans and you as monkeys to serve us. But we were disgusted with your form, so we asked God to transform you into human bodies. And there you are."
My father worked every day from dawn to evening for him because there were no other jobs he could find. I never forgot this story. When I grew up, I asked my father again about this. I thought maybe I had mistakenly remembered the details, or perhaps my subconscious had imagined this conversation. But my father not only confirmed it but also told me many other stories illustrating the racism he faced.
I googled "Israeli education system” and “racism" and found pages of material documenting demonization of Palestinians by Israeli teachers in religious schools. I know the videos I found do not represent all teachers and all schools, but as even a sampling, they are disturbing. One of my discoveries was a series of recordings by Israeli Channel 13 of Rabbi El Ezer Kashtel, director of the Beni David College in the Eli settlement. The videos record him in his classes, calling for the enslavement of "stupid and violent" non-Jews because of their hereditary inferiority: “Gentiles want to be our slaves. Being a servant of a Jew is the best. They are happy to be slaves, they want to be slaves. Instead of just walking the streets and being stupid and violent and hurting each other, when they are slaves, their lives can begin to take on another form."
Other video footage from Israeli classrooms, leaked by various sources, showed rabbis asking children about their feelings toward Arabs. The children replied, "Arabs should be killed!" When children are exposed to continuous defamation and hate of others, what do we expect them to believe? How do we think they will behave? Suddenly, all of the horrors inflicted on the Palestinians by Israelis conscripted into their national forces made sense to me.
Watching these videos was very painful and I found myself feeling sad for the children. I can’t hate them; instead, I found myself wanting to introduce them to another perspective. The double-standard Israeli education system is a poison. It is destructive to both of our societies. Adolf Eichmann was a criminal who contributed to the suffering of innocent Jewish people. In his days, he was educated that the Jewish people were the others, the “monkeys.” He followed orders that reflected what he was taught. But I know you agree that isn’t enough. Each of us must search for truth and then act on it—including standing up to the ideology we are taught.
I now live in the UK. But in Gaza, working with BorderGone to make common cause with like-minded individuals on the other side would be risky. Israeli intelligence uses every tactic possible to recruit collaborators, including the placement of plants in aid organizations. Thus, both the government and the public in general are understandably suspicious and highly cautious about cross-border relationships. But a just and peaceful future requires that we create a credible space to cultivate them.
You led a government that did a lot of damage to my people, and that is actually what gives you such power to make a difference now. In you, I see a partner willing to risk censure and ridicule to extend the ultimate olive branch. I, for one, accept it. The question is how many others will join us?
Editor's note: Avraham Burg also wrote a book titled "The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes." It reinforces what Ahmed observes about the Israeli education system nurturing a constant state of fear of the "other" among Jewish Israelis. It is highly recommended.