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What We Talk About When We Talk About Palestine

Kim Chernin is the author of Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine. She is guest-blogging this week on Jewcy, and this is her first post. I am worried about us, the whole community … Read More

By / September 14, 2009

Kim Chernin is the author of Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine. She is guest-blogging this week on Jewcy, and this is her first post.

I am worried about us, the whole community of us, American Jews who have lost the ability to hold a reasonable discussion. I became aware of this as I was writing a book about Israel and Palestine. I had published many books before so it is customary, when I run into old friends or acquaintances, to be asked what I’m working on. In the past, people didn’t seem particularly impressed or interested; I guess the question was mainly polite and I learned not to answer it in too much detail.

But with this book, everything was different. The responses were often explosive and urgent, sometimes immediately embattled. I remember a few of them. "Why Palestine? Are you one of those self-hating Jews? What do you have to say that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? We really need another book about Israel? I sure hope you’re not going to attack Israel." Those were the negative responses from people who were not friends but belonged to a larger circle of acquaintances. It wasn’t clear to me why their response was hostile before I had a chance to describe the book or my intentions for it; perhaps the word Palestine in the title sounded suspicious, as if anyone writing about both Israel and Palestine was probably not going to take Israel’s side?

The positive responses sounded something like this: "Good for you. Oh, are you courageous. That’s the most important topic in the world right now. Oh boy are you going to run into some angry people. I hope you’re ready for a strong response." The neutral responses were few and far between. "What’s your point of view? I’ll be interested to find out what you are thinking." I explained, when given a chance, that my point of view was evolving; that the book was difficult to write, especially for a woman who had been a Zionist since she was a little girl, when the State of Israel was established in 1948.

Most of the discoveries I was making while doing research were about my own ignorance. I had lived in Israel for a time, I had strong opinions about Israel, but once I started to read it was clear to me how little I knew. I had a couple of basic misconceptions. I thought the Israeli army was fundamentally different than any army in the world. I took seriously that it practiced a "purity of arms." My boyfriend, when I lived in Israel, was a student at the Technion. He was studying to be an engineer but he loved poetry and was becoming interested in the Kabbalah. When he came to stay at our Kibbutz as the commander of an armed border patrol he had hair down to his shoulders, played chess in the Moadon after dinner, and was always engaged in serious discussions with members of the Kibbutz. For me, and for everyone else who met him, he embodied the idealism we wanted to associate with the Israeli army. In fact, for a long time, my entire impression of the Israeli army was based on him, and on an article I had read that Israeli soldiers cried at the funerals of their comrades and that the army higher command was debating whether this was an appropriate behavior for a soldier. Long-haired soldiers who read poetry and weep at funerals: that seemed at the time sufficient knowledge on which to base my strong opinions about Israel’s fighting men.

But my reading and research were opening up other views of the Israeli army, a ferocious fighting force, the fourth largest army in the world. Israel, my little-sister country, had nuclear weapons and the largest army in the Middle East. Did that mean that Israel was perhaps less endangered than I had thought?

My other misconception concerned the Palestinians: I had thought that all of them were terrorists.

These are pretty slim qualifications for writing a book, I admit. But in their own way this these misconceptions became interesting AS the subject of a book written by a hot-headed, opinionated, ignorant author. All I had to do was turn the focus on myself, to wonder how I’d come to hold such strong opinions in the face of such blatant ignorance and to wonder whether other Jews who also were constantly getting into heated arguments about Israel might have arrived at their condition in the same way that I had. I put a lot of facts and statistics and quotations and stories and anecdotes in my book but the book remained essentially a narrative of consciousness-how it shaped itself through what it was willing to include and what it forcefully and militantly kept out of itself.

It’s funny to think that one could be inspired to write a book because of one’s misconceptions. But here we are.

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