May 23, 2024

Tel Aviv/West Jerusalem – In 2015, Maya, a Jewish Israeli, travelled to Greece to help Syrian refugees. At the time, she was an exchange student in Germany and she had been deeply moved by the pictures she saw of desperate people arriving there in small boats.

That was where she met Palestinians who had been born in Syria after their parents and grandparents fled there during the founding of her own country in 1948.

They told her about the Nakba – or “catastrophe” – in which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes to make way for the newly established Israel. Maya, 33, who had been taught that her country was born through “an independence war” against hostile Arab neighbours, decided that she needed to “unlearn” what she had learned.

“I never heard about the right of return, or Palestinian refugees,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I had to get out of Israel to start learning about Israel. It was the only way I could puncture holes in what I was taught.”

Maya, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals, is one of a small number of Israeli Jewish activists who identify as “anti-Zionists” or “non-Zionists”.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israeli group with a stated mission of fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the United States, Zionism means supporting a Jewish state established for the protection of Jews worldwide.

However, many anti-Zionists like Maya and the people she works with view Zionism as a Jewish supremacist movement which has ethnically cleansed most of historic Palestine and systematically discriminates against the Palestinians who remain, either as citizens of Israel or residents of the occupied territories.

But since Hamas’s deadly attack on Israeli civilians and military outposts on October 7, in which 1,139 people were killed and nearly 250 taken captive, Israeli anti-Zionists have been accused of treason for speaking about Palestinian human rights.

Many have called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza to stop what they view as collective punishment and genocide of the Palestinian people.

“I think [anti-Zionists] always claim that Jewish supremacy is not the answer and it is not the answer to the [October 7] killings,” Maya said.

“Israelis don’t understand how the Palestinian story is all about the Nakba, refugees and the right of return. If we are not able to deal with that then we are not going anywhere.”

Perceived as ‘traitors’

Since October 7, Israeli anti-Zionists have described living in a hostile political and social environment. Many say the police have violently cracked down on anti-war protests, while others have received threats from far-right-wing Israelis.

Roee, who, like Maya, did not give his last name for fear of reprisals from Israeli society or authorities, is also a Jewish Israeli activist. In October last year, he attended a small demonstration of a couple of dozen people a few days after Israel began bombing Gaza. The demonstrators were calling on Hamas to free all Israeli captives and on Israel to stop the war.

“The police pushed all of us [out] violently in just two minutes,” Roee, 28, told Al Jazeera at a cafe in West Jerusalem.

Weeks later, Roee and his friend, Noa, who also did not want her full name to be revealed, attended another silent demonstration outside a police station in Nazareth, a mostly Palestinian city in Israel. They put tape over their mouths to denounce the sweeping arrests of Palestinian figures who had also called for an end to the war on Gaza.

But again, police chased down the Israeli protesters and beat them with batons.

“I think it is very clear that the police recognise us. It doesn’t matter the signs we hold. They know us. They know we are leftists and that we are ‘traitors’ or whatever they call us,” Noa told Al Jazeera.

Many Israeli antiwar activists have also been smeared or “doxxed” – a term given to people whose identities and addresses are made known on social media by those hoping to intimidate them into silence.

Maya said that a right-wing activist had accused her romantic partner of cooperating with Hamas by informing them of the whereabouts of Israeli positions in Gaza. The activist published photos of her partner on Instagram with captions detailing the fabricated accusations. 

“We were afraid that our address would be exposed, but luckily it wasn’t. Even before October 7, [these groups of extreme right-wing people] tried to obtain addresses of people to ‘dox’ them and taunt them. Some of our friends had to leave their apartments. That was our main worry,” Maya said.

Conscientious objectors

While most Israelis are required to enlist in the army after high school, antiwar activists have refused to take part in their country’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, where raids and arrests have been intensified since October, or in the war on Gaza. Two young Israelis who publicly refused to join the army are now serving short sentences in military prison.

Einat Gerlitz, a “non-Zionist” and a member of Mesarvot, a non-profit organisation providing social and legal support to Israeli conscientious objectors, said that more people have refused military service since the war on Gaza began.

“The army does not release the numbers … because the army’s interest is to make sure [refusing service] is not a topic spoken about in the public sphere. The government and army work really hard to glorify army service, so they want minimal attention on conscientious objectors,” the 20-year-old said.

While she, herself, is happy to be public about her views – she spent 87 days in prison in 2022 for refusing to serve in the Israeli army (IDF) – she added that many others do not go public for fear of social backlash or reprisals.

Einat Gerlitz is a 20-year-old peace activist and a conscientious objector. She spoke about her peace activism in a café in Tel Aviv. [Al Jazeera/Mat Nashed]
Einat Gerlitz is a 20-year-old peace activist and a conscientious objector. She spoke about her peace activism in a cafe in Tel Aviv [Al Jazeera/Mat Nashed]

Gerlitz added that the October 7 attack did not make her reconsider her peace activism, but she is very concerned for friends and peers who were quickly deployed to Gaza.

“I was worried for them, but I was also worried about some of the commands that they may need to fulfil,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to her worries that soldiers may be ordered to commit atrocities or violate international law.

Over the past five months, Israeli soldiers have razed entire neighbourhoods in Gaza, bombed universities, hospitals and places of worship, and shot at crowds of starving Palestinians lining up for food aid.

Rights groups say that these attacks amount to war crimes and may collectively amount to a campaign of genocide.

‘We need greater empathy’

Many anti-Zionist Israelis say that their aim is to make fellow Israelis recognise the humanity of the Palestinians.

However, they say it has been difficult to counter the messaging of Israeli politicians, some of whom have called Palestinians in Gaza “animals”, “subhuman” or “barbarians” in order to rally support for the war. Some of these statements were singled out by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which issued an emergency order in January on the genocide case brought against Israel by South Africa.

Israeli society also expresses little empathy for Palestinians in Gaza, several Israeli activists told Al Jazeera. They explained they believe this is partly due to Israeli media rarely reporting on the army’s probable war crimes, nor on the catastrophic humanitarian crisis brought on by Israel’s war.

Maya recalls going to a demonstration in Tel Aviv to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza in late October. About 50 people attended, with many holding up photos of children killed by the Israeli army. But when Israeli children saw the photos, they claimed they were fake.

“[Young Israeli kids] pointed at a photo of a father holding a dead baby in Gaza and said, ‘How can you believe this? It’s not real. He is acting’,” Maya said.

“[Another child] pointed to a different dead baby and said, ‘This is a doll’.”

Addam Yekutieli, an anti-Zionist Israeli and a graffiti artist, was also at the protest. He said that an Israeli woman called the demonstrators “traitors” and said that her own brother had died fighting for Israel in Gaza.

While Yekutieli was heartbroken to hear about her loss, he said he believes that the government is weaponising Israeli grief to commit atrocities in Gaza. He added that he tries to humanise Palestinians through his art and spoke about one project where he photographed the physical scars that Palestinians and Israelis bore from past conflicts.

“Once there is empathy, it creates an entirely different foundation to begin engaging in reality,” he told Al Jazeera. “It should be a given that people in Gaza are human beings with families, dreams and jobs.

“But, for many factors, there is this ongoing process [in Israel] of dehumanising Palestinians.”

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