Editorial: Fighting for a home
In January 1944, near Szarkiszki in Lithuania, a train carrying Italian soldiers home from the eastern front at Vilnius was blown up and 200 men were killed. It was the work of Jewish partisans hiding in Rudniki forest. Throughout the war they derailed hundreds of trains and killed more than 3,000 Axis soldiers.
This was the stuff of my summer holiday reading – specifically, If Not Now, When?, Primo Levi’s novelised historical account of Jewish partisans in the Second World War, published in 1982. It’s an extraordinary story of endurance in the face of a hostile natural environment, an equally hostile population and, of course, an even more hostile enemy army. They even face racism from fellow anti-Nazi partisans.
And yet, despite the extremity of their hardships, there is a powerful sense that this is simply an extension of the age-old Jewish experience in Europe – of hostility, rejection and violence. So it is logical that the partisans call themselves Zionists: They dream of surviving and escaping to make a home in the free land of Israel.
What a sadly different ring the word “Zionist” has for many today. Its most common meaning has come to be: “Supporting the state of Israel’s increase in power and land at the expense of Palestinians”. For those who oppose it, it has come to mean oppression, destruction and killing.
I have stood amid the rubble of Palestinian homes, built on ancestral land in Palestinian territory, where Israeli settlers had moved in nearby (illegally) and had then called in the army to defend them from the perceived threat of their new neighbours. So the army had demolished the Palestinians’ homes – and any structure they tried to replace them with. This seems to be how national expansion in the name of Zionism works.
I have also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, staying with Zionists who feel that the world’s age-old hatred of God’s chosen people is now manifest in the hostility of neighbouring nations and attackers within Israel’s own borders. This seems to be how experience has broken the hope for a safe home.
Primo Levi’s story made me see how far I am from understanding Jewish experience, and therefore Israeli actions. But my own experience is that, where people are violently divided, hope lies in meeting each other and listening, in hearing each other’s stories.
There is no better illustration of resistance to this hearing process than the West Bank wall. But on either side of it seem to be people who long for nothing more than a safe home. No deep conflict is easy to mend, but God grant us all the ability to cross the wall and hear the other side.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Reform.