In the preface to the new anthology Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation, dissident Israeli journalist Amira Hass brings attention to “part of this ‘other’ Jewish tradition, the tradition of those who tell jokes and break down walls” (xi).
Published by Whole World Press and edited by Osie Gabriel Adelfang, Shifting Sands is a collection of essays, prose and one poem by Jewish activists and writers. The anthology opens with Linda Dittmar’s account of her Israeli upbringing in pre- and post-Nakba Palestine. She works with Zochrot, the Israeli organization documenting the Nakba — the 1948 catastrophe in which more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Zionist militias.
Dittmar’s story gives clues as to why she would want to get involved. Soon after 1948, the neighboring Palestinian villages were no longer full of the signs of life she was used to seeing as a child: the felaha (villager) women selling produce door-to-door, the lights shining from domestic windows. As a child she could not understand why or how this happened, and her essay is a revealing account of “the silence in which everyone around … [me] colluded” (8).
Hannah Mermelstein is one of the founders of Birthright Unplugged, a group set up in “rejection of the notion of a ‘birthright’ for Jewish people to the land of Israel/Palestine.” Mermelstein helps organize educational tours of occupied Palestine. She relates the story of her mission to find the 1948 home of her Boston friend Munir, who, she writes, “at the age of four, he and his family, along with 800,000 Palestinian people, were forced out by pre-Israeli forces” (19).
Mermelstein eventually finds Munir’s family home occupied by a Moroccan Zionist who says the Israeli government “probably had it first” after the Nakba. He justifies this with religion: “This is our land; it says so in the Bible” (24). But he did let her in to take pictures, saying his sister once went back to Morocco to look for their home, but the current resident did not let her do the same.
Possibly the best contribution in the book comes from Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, who came to wider attention in August 2008 with her plan to sail to the Gaza Strip on the first Free Gaza Movement boat (although in the end she had to withdraw).
In a moving account, Epstein tells of her escape from Nazi Germany as a child. Her parents were sent to the death camps and she never heard from them again. After the war, she returned from London to Germany and worked as a research assistant in trials of Nazi doctors who had experimented on camp inmates. The documents and photos gave her nightmares for years.
Epstein was active in many human rights issues, but did not start paying attention to Palestine until the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. Her parents had been anti-Zionists. When they wanted to escape from Germany, Epstein writes, “[t]hey were willing to go anywhere, except one place: Palestine … they wanted to live in an integrated society, they were not interested in a country for Jews only” (28).
Meanwhile, Alice Rothchild takes the reader on a tour through the occupied West Bank with a guide from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who shows her the settlements and the Israeli “matrix of control.” The reader learns about settler groups with Israeli government backing like Elad and their financiers like US billionaire Irving Moskowitz.
Jen Marlowe’s report from Gaza is decent (if a little dated), even though she incorrectly describes the capture of an Israeli soldier as a “kidnapping” (99).
Closing the book is Anna Baltzer’s report from Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank. Her account is a good example of what is most successful in the book: when the writers allow Palestinian voices to speak. Baltzer narrates a Palestinian man named Omar’s account of a cousin’s attempted armed defense of Balata camp from Israeli invasion. This led both to his cousin’s death, and a revenge attack inside Israel by Omar’s brother (118).
But aside from these high points, this is a difficult book to wholeheartedly recommend. The quality of the contributions is just too uneven. Some essays are confused, contradictory — even factually wanting in a few places.
For example, the essay by activist Starhawk is a sort of aimless ramble, with long diversions into discussing her pagan religious beliefs. She dangerously implies that anti-Zionism is fascism: “[calling Zionism racism is to] support the complacency of Jew haters and fascists,” she claims (110).
She bizarrely argues that “… if we admit the Palestinians’ full humanity … while that admission might seem to threaten Israel’s right to exist, it is not nearly as much of a threat as clinging to the justifications and rationalization that prevent us from seeing the ‘other’ as human” (112). Perhaps it was not the author’s intention, but this convoluted passage implied to me that she considers the very humanity of Palestinians a matter of debate if it threatens Israel’s alleged “right to exist.”
Several of the pieces are tediously navel-gazing and self-indulgent. Some seem to miss the point of a book advertised as confronting the Israeli occupation. It is hard to see see what editor Adelfang’s musings about a personal decision not to circumcise her sons has to do with Israeli occupation or war crimes.
Epstein’s story about her Jewish background feels like a relevant part of the narrative, but some of the other contributions here seem more adrift, overly introspective and devoid of any Palestinian voice.
During a time of slow, but positive advances in western awareness when it comes to Palestine, some of this seems like a step backwards. There is too much introspection here, and not enough direct challenge to Zionism — although some contributors do a fine job of that.
For those new to the Palestine issue looking for an anthology, Kenneth Ring and Ghassan Abdullah’s collection Letters From Palestine is a better bet. Ben White’s Israeli Apartheid: a Beginner’s Guide is a recommended factual introduction to the issue.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He is the editor of a book about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine out on Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.