I fight for justice in Palestine for many reasons. On August 28, 1939, at the age of 16, my Jewish grandfather boarded a ship at Le Havre in Northern France bound for the United States. He was entirely alone. His family was already in the U.S., but he had waited months for his visa to be approved. In British-colonized Palestine, 1939 marked the end of what is termed the “Great Arab Revolt.” This three-year conflict left 10% of the adult male Palestinian-Arab population between the ages of 20 and 60 killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled. My grandfather had a home waiting for him, but millions of Palestinians did not and still do not.
Growing up, many of my friends’ grandparents were also Holocaust survivors. As a child, I was routinely fed a narrative that Jewish statehood and self-determination were the only ways to cope with this trauma and to ensure safety. It is sadly unsurprising that I never learned about the occupation since educators in my hometown faced potential lawsuits for practically uttering the word “Palestine.” It was only after coming to Middlebury that I learned the severity of the misinformation I had been exposed to throughout my childhood. Studying in Jordan and making Palestinian and Arab friends pushed me to seek out the truth. No one told me of the innumerable house demolitions, massacres like that at Deir Yassin in 1948 or the horrendous violence Palestinians face daily at the hands of the Israeli state and settlers. I can barely even begin to scrape the surface of the terrors inflicted upon Palestinians over decades upon decades of ethnic cleansing. It made (and makes) me sick to think my grandparents’ trauma could even remotely factor into this violence. How could any Jew, with our history of violent persecution, commit such atrocities?
The simple answer to this question also emerged from self-education: Judaism does not equal Zionism. In fact, working with Jewish Voice for Peace and developing friendships with anti-Zionist Jews taught me that the conflation of a political and historically contingent ideology with systematic religious persecution is extremely dangerous. If we cannot discern the differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, then how can we effectively combat antisemitism globally? During the Jan. 6 insurrection, white supremacists simultaneously flew the Israeli flag and wore shirts saying “six million wasn’t enough.” How can we make sense of that if not by distinguishing between the two?
Reflection upon my identity as a queer individual has also significantly informed my relationship to Zionism. When planning to go abroad, many family members and friends expressed concerns for my safety in Jordan. In my Jewish community, an abstracted “Arabness” was marked as homophobic, while Israel was painted as queer-friendly. They appeared to believe that, the moment I stepped off the plane, I would be violently assaulted. For context, in 2009, the straight mayor of Tel Aviv participated in the “Brand Israel” campaign that sought to portray Israel as a progressive, modern and democratic haven in the Middle East (Atshan, 3-4). Ultimately, this campaign aimed to whitewash human rights abuses against Palestinians. Central to that process was marketing Tel Aviv as a “safe haven” for LGBTQIA+ folx and a premier gay tourist destination. This is pinkwashing: the co-opting of queerness towards such malicious ends. I could not and will not stand for it. From there, my commitment to Palestine activism grew. Just as fighting misinformation became one of my primary concerns, so too did standing in solidarity with queer Palestinian folx.
When I returned to Middlebury last fall, I was eager to join Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for many reasons. For me, building SJP’s educational resource go/apartheid and writing the section on Zionism allowed me to provide individuals with some of the information I was not exposed to. Education was and is an act of radical solidarity. I want people to know that Zionism is not apolitical or ahistorical. Its contemporary iterations are rooted in European colonialism and they rationalize a system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing that shapes the lives of Palestinians. Plus, the abstraction of Zionism into the belief that Israel is the homeland for a supposed monolithic Jewish people also silences Jewish histories of resistance. The suppression of critiques of Zionism and Israel silences Jewish voices like mine. It silences queer voices like mine. And, thus, it inhibits me from weaponizing my privilege and bolstering marginalized Palestinians voices. As Jewish American lesbian feminist, author and activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz explains, “Solidarity is the political version of love.” This is why I fight for justice in Palestine.
Matt Martignoni is a co-President of SJP and a member of the class of 2021.5.