“If you want to change the world, you need to change your story”, so says Michael Margolis, CEO and founder of Storied, a strategic consultancy that specialises in storytelling for disruption.
As a filmmaker, the quote makes perfect sense to me. Stories provide us with an emotional sustenance which can galvanise, hearten and sustain humanity through its most complex and arduous challenges. But stories, unlike mere ideas, or arguments, speak to the heart, a space beyond hardened misconceptions which can impede our ability to relate and connect to our shared humanity.
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In a new, controversial documentary film called Israelism, two young American Jews raised to unconditionally love Israel, experience a profound and life-changing awakening as they bear witness to the brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As they join a growing movement of young American Jews battling the old guard to redefine Judaism’s relationship with Israel, the protagonists take us into the battle over the very soul of modern Jewish identity.
The film has been touring US campuses, where its release during the ongoing genocidal assault on Gaza has led to numerous calls for censorship and cancellations of scheduled screenings by campus authorities. In the midst of a highly censored public debate around the Israeli occupation, the efforts to censor the film is a reflection of the times – even the Jewish voices for peace being targeted by the machine which has for so long sought to silence Palestinian calls for liberation.
Israelism tells a story which we all need to hear, not least because today the United States is the only force that can rein in Israeli extremism. It offers a small window into how powerful special interest groups in the US groom young Jews into blindly supporting Israel, and how some, like its protagonists, manage to escape it.
But to a non-Jew like myself, the most compelling element of the film was its candid depiction of the emotional bond most Jews have been made to develop with Israel, and the difficulties they experience when they attempt to step outside of the powerful, unifying narrative that sustains this bond.
While its many critics, including myself, view Israel as an ethno-nationalist, racially supremacist rogue state, at odds with international law and operating an apartheid system, Jews are taught from a young age that the modern state of Israel is the embodiment of Jewish self-actualisation and freedom.
That’s no small narrative to dismantle because, in part, it is true. After years of persecution and exile, Jews do finally have a home. Except it is not their home. It’s that of the Palestinians. The displacement of Palestinians from their land to actualise the Zionist myth of a “land without people for a people with a land” is no less objectionable than the persecution and exile imposed on the Jews historically.
While the main characters in Israelism come to see that their dream of Israel has been built on a lie, what was missing from the film was an alternative story.
Academic Barnett R Rubin poetically describes the Jewish narrative about modern Israel in his article titled “False Messiahs”: “Repeated in every era, this grand narrative – slavery to freedom, exile to redemption – was the constant, if sometimes barely audible, background music of the Jewish people’s understanding of their encounter with history.”
Rubin paints a poignant picture of Jewish history, replete with the horrors of anti-Semitic European persecution through the centuries, exile, and a deep longing and hope for a place of safety and security. Political Zionism does not emerge out of a vacuum, he explains, but from the inability of European states to guarantee the safety and security of the Jewish people. With the pogroms and eventually, the culmination of European racialised violence in the form of the Holocaust in the mid-20th century, the toxic intersection of colonialism and Zionism sets the stage for our current crisis.
“Israeli Jews are settler colonialists with a historical memory of indigenous origin,” writes Rubbin. “They developed an ideology and a political rather than purely religious movement of ‘return’. But their historical memory was not shared by the land’s inhabitants. The historical memory of the Jewish people did not create the right or capacity to confiscate or occupy a single dunam of land against the will of its possessors. The historical memory of one people, however tenacious, creates no right to rule over another.”
That narrative of dispossession, persecution and triumph is what is buttressing support for the current state of Israel. While a growing movement of critics is dismantling this, the next generation of haunted residents of this contested land, desperately need a new story of hope to replace it.
Today, as the Israeli founder and executive director of Idealist.org, Ami Dar, writes, “If everyone, everywhere, truly accepted that seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians are not going anywhere, and that any possible future has to include and encompass both, the whole energy around this conflict would shift.”
For that shift to happen, we need new stories. Stories which recognise and honour claims to the land which, whilst presented as competing, are not inherently so. After all, Indigenous philosophies might push us to consider that land belongs to no one and that in fact, the Abrahamic stewards of the land have a common mission to preserve and protect its sacred nature and honour all its inhabitants.
Rubbin seems to suggest that a “decolonised” Zionism, one divorced from the corrupting supremacy of colonialism, and therefore more of a cultural longing for a place, than a political or territorial claim to it, should be distinguished from the violent settler ideology currently unleashed: “The Palestine they [the Jews] longed for was the embodiment of their hopes, rather than a few provinces of the Ottoman empire with Arab Muslim and Christian populations.” And so it may be from within those hopes, married to the longing of the Palestinians for a return to their land, for autonomy over their lives, and for peace, that the next story might be weaved. And while it is arguably those same elemental dreams which render the current power struggle so apocalyptic, they also render a story which honours them profoundly compelling.
While the focus of Israelism is on the need for Jews to dismantle the Frankenstein that is Israel’s violent occupation, what is missing is a narrative of hope.
A growing number of Jews are joining the ranks of anti-Zionism and the mass protests of Jewish Voices for Peace and Jewish elders have proven powerful counters to the otherwise assumed consensus around support for the current Israeli state. But counter-narratives require more than simple opposition to last.
The story being sold to young Jews around the world is profound, moving and utterly compelling. And this means that any struggle to free Jews from this mischaracterisation of the state of Israel as a redemptive embodiment of Jewish self-actualisation will necessarily require an equally, if not more compelling, counter-narrative. One which honours legitimate Jewish fears of history repeating itself, provides the community and communion of a shared dream, of cosmic dimension, but also promises to liberate the Palestinians.
As Rubin also points out: “What is objectionable about colonialism is not the immigration or settlement of a population of a different ethnic or national origin, or of people that are in some sense non-indigenous, but the domination of one group over another. It is impossible to rewind and rerun history. But it is possible, indeed necessary, to assure a future where Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights.”
As Israelis become increasingly disillusioned with Netanyahu, Jewish voices within and outside of Israel need to confront the impact of militaristic ideology on their culture, politics and identity. The Israel Democracy Institute survey, a monthly gauge of Israeli sentiment on current events, found diminishing levels of optimism for the country’s future security and democratic character. If the nihilistic TikTok videos mocking maimed Palestinian children weren’t a wake-up call, the telegram groups in which thousands revel over snuff movies of Palestinian civilians being tortured and killed should be. Any denigration of the humanity of another necessarily diminishes our own. This loop of dehumanising violence should not be varnished by propaganda tales any longer.
While honouring legacies of suffering and exile, opposition to the apartheid state must also make way for the promise of a new dream. Nelson Mandela’s freedom movement wasn’t led merely by opposition to white supremacy – it was guided by a dream of coexistence, equality and justice for all. Contrary to narratives of Palestinian contrariety, Palestinian leadership has consistently and generously made space for the Jewish presence on their land. It is now up to the new generation of Jews to reimagine their history in a way which honours all God’s children equally – and in that new story lies the true promised land.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.