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Al Jazeera Correspondent

Israel: A dream, for some

Matthew Cassel embarks on a personal journey to discover if it is possible to be both Jewish and a critic of Israel.

Last updated: 15 Dec 2013 10:45
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When he was 21 years old, Matthew Cassel travelled to Israel/Palestine to witness the Palestinian experience first-hand [Matthew Cassel]

I was raised Jewish in the US. I went to weekly Hebrew school as a kid and was Bar Mitzvahed at 13. But during nearly a decade of living in the Middle East, that identity is not something I've told many people about.

Recently I started to wonder why I've kept it hidden. When I first came to the region I was advised by a Palestinian friend that it was best to not talk about my Jewish background lest I be mistaken for an Israeli since Judaism has become conflated with Zionism.  

I might not be the most observant of Jews these days, but I'm tired of that part of my identity being bound up with a state, especially one that continues to militarily occupy and confiscate another people's land. I wanted to understand how Zionism has come to dominate Jewish identity, so I decided to make a film about it.

My journey first takes me home to the US, where my Jewish upbringing centred largely around ideas of social justice and taking a stand against oppression because of the long history of persecution that Jews faced in Europe. Israel was the answer to that - a haven. That was Zionism for me. But I hadn't heard much about the Palestinian experience until I travelled to the Middle East to see the situation first-hand.

I was a naïve 21-year-old when I stood at an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, shocked by what I saw: Israeli soldiers my age or younger carrying large guns while they shoved and shouted at Palestinian kids, the elderly, women, it didn't matter. And waving high above the checkpoint, bold and proud, was the Israeli flag. But the thing that really got to me was realising that before I saw the occupation for myself, I had no idea it was happening.  

Identity and Exile - Extra

I needed to learn more, so I spent more time living and travelling in the occupied West Bank. When I brought the stories home through my photographs and writing they were well received by friends and peers who encouraged me to do more, which eventually led me to become a journalist.  

But with my Jewish mother it was a different story. We fought. A lot. We were unable to discuss the conflict in Israel/Palestine without immediately shouting at each other. When she saw me at a protest carrying a Palestinian flag a couple of years later, she told me that it represented everything she was against and that I was no longer her son.

We've managed to mostly repair our relationship, but this issue still proves to be a difficult one to discuss. I had given up hope on the idea that Judaism could ever be separated from Zionism until I discovered a growing number of dissident Jewish voices that reject the fusion of their religious identity with support for Israel.

I was surprised when I learned that there was a rabbi in the US who was outspoken in defence of Palestinian rights, and even more surprised when I learned that he headed my former synagogue. But as Rabbi Brant and others like him are quick to admit, they are a minority. How has this issue turned so many American Jews into fervent Zionists unwilling to criticise Israel?

I wanted to find out, so I spoke to Jewish leaders, Jewish human rights groups and others to ask why they are so steadfast in their support. I also pose the question: is it possible to be both Jewish and a critic of Israel?

Entry denied

As a journalist, my goal has always been to help amplify the stories of those who rarely get heard. That's why a Palestinian friend and I started a photography school in the Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Soon after, I brought three of the youth on a tour of the US so they could exhibit their work and speak directly with Americans about their lives as refugees under occupation.

Matthew Cassel returns to Israel/Palestine to see what Zionism looks like today [Matthew Cassel]

Shortly after the tour, I tried to return to Balata to continue the programme. But after more than seven hours of being interrogated by Israeli border guards when I tried to enter the country from Jordan, I was barred from entering. Ironic, that in all my travels in the Middle East, the so-called Jewish state is the only country to deny me entry.

Days later, I travelled to Lebanon. Until that point I had little understanding of the breadth of the Palestinian plight, but in Lebanon it was obvious. More than six decades after Israel's founding, millions of Palestinian refugees remain unable to return to the lands they were forced to flee. Many of them still live in refugee camps in the Arab world. In Lebanon there are more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees.

I arrived in the midst of the Lebanese army's battle with a radical group in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. The refugees were once again caught in the middle as they were forced to flee with nothing but what they could carry in their arms.

As the war went on I made numerous trips to the north and met Ziad Ishtawi and his family as they campaigned to return to Nahr al-Bared. I became close to the family, and I was there when his sons and daughters got married and had kids of their own. But over the years, I never talked to Ziad about my background. Since Judaism has become synonymous with Zionism, I was worried he would associate my background with his suffering.

I discuss my upbringing with Ziad for the first time in this film, and I listen as he tells me about his and other refugees' thoughts on Judaism, Zionism and what the conflict has meant for them.

From there I travel back to Israel/Palestine for the first time in six years. I was nervous when we got to the border and ready for disappointment. It's an important place for me where I've spent a lot of time and have many dear friends. But for others, like Ziad Ishtawi, it is so much more.

After four hours of interrogation, I was finally allowed into the country to explore what Zionism looks like today. A lot has changed since I was last there in 2006, but much remains the same. In the film, I speak with Israelis and Palestinians about Zionism and the conflict, and travel to the Ishtawi's ancestral village in northern Israel to try and reconnect the refugee half of the family with those who stayed behind.

Over the course of making this film, I've learned that there exist two very different ways of looking at Israel. In the US, it's thought of as the realisation of a dream. But for Palestinians and others, it's something much different. And I believe that only once we start to understand that latter perspective will we get closer to resolving this conflict.  

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage

Al Jazeera Correspondent can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2000; Friday: 1200; Saturday: 0100; Sunday: 0600; Monday: 2000; Tuesday: 1130; Wednesday: 0100; Thursday: 0600.

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