Seventy years ago, Tikva Honig-Parnass terminated her university classes, ignoring her parents’ advice, and rushed off to join the Palmach, the elite Jewish military force established in the 1940s to help create a Jewish state in historical Palestine. She was 18.
Her unit, the Harel Brigade, played its part in depopulating and destroying Palestinian towns and villages to create the foundations of the Zionist dream.
Initially, a wireless operator with the Haganah, Tikva deserted her unit to join the Palmach – “the crowning achievement of the Jewish Zionist youth” – and served as secretary to the commander.
She says women in the Palmach “didn’t really take part in real combat” but they followed close behind and witnessed the results.
“Villages around me were wiped out. Qalunya, just a few kilometres west of Jerusalem, was on our right on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. One day it was wiped out,” she says and is silent for several moments.
Qalunya was one of more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages that was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militia during 1948-49. It was home to about 1,000 people.
“Where did they go to? How did they go? We never asked the questions,” she says.
When asked if anything she witnessed shocked her, she answers: “Nothing. Nothing! That’s the whole thing – nothing shocked us.”
Her indoctrination to the aims and self-righteousness of the Zionist enterprise was evident from an early age. Her Zionist parents were as secular as they come, she says, and she and her two siblings were enrolled in a secular Zionist school – secular except that “we learned the Bible as an historical document, six days a week”, says Tikva. (Her name means The Hope and is the national anthem of Israel)
Today, aged 89, Tikva is physically frail but mentally as sharp as nails, and her zeal and determination remain. However, she has directed them for several decades now to deconstructing and exposing via academic journals and articles the crimes on which Israel’s foundations are built, and to analysing the psychological mindset that was essential to indoctrinating the 1948 generation she belonged to.
“The position we internalised [in the Palmach] pretended that we were not dealing with the development of a military force that was waiting for an opportune time to realise the Zionist plan for the conquest of the land and the dispossession of its Palestinian inhabitants, but rather a ‘revolutionary army’ of the oppressed,” she wrote in an article 20 years ago.
A life-long committed Marxist-Socialist who read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Plekhanov, Rosa Luxembourg and others as a teenager, Tikva began to see Zionism as a colonialist enterprise only in the early 1960s, particularly with the establishment of the anti-Zionist political party, Matzpen, or the Socialist Organisation in Israel.
Even with this understanding, she notes: “I was still captive to the myths that continued to be cultivated by Israel’s social and cultural elites … and above all, to the comradeship in arms which was the emblem of the generation, and which I still saw as an expression of supreme values.”
It was an unexpected event in 1983 that took her journey to the next critical stage – this time on an “emotional-experiential level”: in 1983 her mother gave her letters that Tikva had written to her parents when she was young. One of the first letters she read was dated October 30, 1948.
It was written on several sheets of paper that she had found in an abandoned petrol station. The letterhead read in Arabic and English: “Ahmed N Sharabti, Agent of the Shell Company, Bab Al-Wad Artouf Station, PO Box 712, Jerusalem, Palestine.”
The petrol station was in a village that she used to retreat to for peace and space, she recalls, wandering through the empty – emptied – Palestinian homes.
“Even in the kitchens, there were things that people had left in their rush to flee. I loved going to this village on my own, having it to myself. I often went there in the evenings, during sunset. I never gave one thought to the people who lived there.”
As for the letterhead, Tikva notes with shock: “I had to have confronted the amber words printed on the top of each page; indeed, I must have known that here was a man who lived and worked, and was expelled or forced to flee by all my glorious brothers in the unit in which I served?”
“I had just wiped it the entire memory from my mind, I erased it,” she says. “And then it all came back to me when I read that letter.”
Her ability to dehumanise their victims was consummate, she says.
Tikva mentions in the letter many Palestinian women and children whom they had displaced, “starving for bread”. Their suffering didn’t trouble her at all – but what did were several American Zionists with them who were openly critical of their comrades’ disregard.
“The letter uncovers an advanced stage in the dehumanisation process and the emotional crippling that my generation had to undergo in order to fulfill the missions which were assigned to them: conquering the land, expelling its indigenous Palestinian residents, expropriating most of their lands and turning them into ‘state lands.'”
To do this, individual human rights were subsumed by the collective rights of the Zionist state, she says.
“I was brought up where the individual didn’t have any rights – it wasn’t said explicitly but it was confirmed indirectly by the collective and the state as its expression. It’s this idea of putting the security of the state over individual human rights – everything is defended and justified as the ‘security’ of the state.”
Tikva sees little difference with the ‘semi-fascist indoctrination’ that shaped her as a child with the prevalent views that shape Jewish Israelis today – myths that remain essential for Israel to justify its dispossession and human rights violations, and to survive as a Zionist state, she says.
The system of apartheid inside Israel and exercised in the occupied territories; the blockade of Gaza and the military force used against an imprisoned population; the extrajudicial killings – it’s all an essential extension of Israel’s founding ideology, she believes.
“The argument is that it’s not only about security but existence. It is an existential war, they want to eliminate us. You see the absurdity of the whole scene? I don’t think any colonialist movement in the world, not even South Africa, succeeded in turning upside down this logic, of making the colonisers the victims.”
Her journey to “de-colonise” her mind has taken decades. It has resulted in alienation from her community but acceptance from Palestinians and fellow internationalists, as she sees herself.
She paints a bleak picture at home, describing the “Daesh-isation” of Israel as it becomes more religiously extreme, and its moves to becoming a “typical fascist state”.
She cites the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and some “self-contradictions within the Jewish community” as the few signs of hope that help keep her going. And her filmmaker grandson, she adds proudly, whose values confront and challenge those of his society.
“But there’s no future for him here with his thinking,” she notes with acceptance.