The School for Unlearning Zionism
BY YEHUDIT YINHAR
The School for Unlearning Zionism was born from many moments of conversation and recognition that we, Jewish Israelis, have homework to do. In Hebrew, we say „eating the cake and leaving it whole“. It seems it comes down to that. We cannot have both. We cannot be part of joint struggles for equality without dealing to the depth with the unequal power relations which define our experiences in life and in death.
Landing in Tel Aviv there is a sign on the wall on the building of border control that reads „Ben Gurion1 Airport, Israeli Pride“. On one of my last visits, I remember telling my friend while standing in front of Ben Gurions grave (a tomb made for him and his wife placed at the edge of a cliff looking over the desert) that I am surprised it isn‘t full of Graffiti, seeing it is out in the open and all (though still quite heavily surveiled). She looked at me and said „Yehudit. He is Ben Gurion. We are in Israel.“ In retrospective I think I would have never even have noticed the grave is untouched (or even thought that distrubing a grave is even an option) if I wouldn’t have left.
There have always been moments in which „the story“ didn‘t work. I call them breaking moments. It is a feeling that from this moment on things will not be the same. It seems these breaking moments are mostly connected to (or at least are often triggered by) loss. At some point we begin to look for the breaking moments actively. Because there is no way back. That which we were taught that belongs together may not, and things which were never supposed to meet become unseperable. This is where Schools for Unlearning are born. Learning what we have learned/been taught is in itself part of the practice of Unlearning. We do not teach in our school. We learn together. We contextualize and make new connections of materials we often know by heart.
We were taught that our Jewish Israeli story is a special one. Our history of persecution and pain are specific and not abstractable. We can share these things but never give them away. When we lose one of ours, it is uncomparable with the loss of others and theirs. We are taught an inner logic that tells itsself it is in contstant survival. Our bodies are lent to the collective for this. We are part of a body that we swear with our lives for and which makes us a promise to never leave us behind. This body will come pick us up if we are stuck somewhere, will search for us if we are lost, will exchange prisoners of war for our bones. No one takes care of us as good as we do ourselves. Yet the price of being part of this collective is high. They are happy to come pick you up – and you should be grateful. They are happy you come back alive – and you should stay loyal. Your critique is welcome – but really legit as long as you don’t leave.
Unlearning is not about taking revenge on the collective that is also our home (though many of us struggle with being part of, if we stay and if we leave). Unlearning Zionism is about having conversations in which things we often didnt know exist become unseparable from our core values. It is not by accident that this school was born „outside“. In a way Berlin lays between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
We remember our dead soldiers by gathering together on Memorial Day (‚Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism3, Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah – „Yom HaZikaron“ in short), dressed in white shirts with a sticker which has the word „Remember“ (Yizkor) written in hebrew and a picture of a red flower that grows locally and we call „Blood of the Maccabees“ (Dam Hamakabim דם המכבים) on it.4 We hold ceremonies in their memory all over the land – at school in the morning and at the basket ball court of the village/town/city in the evening. When their names are read out loud at school it feels as if you knew them, even when they died before you were born. These are our siblings, our parents, our neighbors – us and ours. It is important we remember them together. „They died so that we could live“.5 The regret of their lost lives must be comforted with a story that it was not in vain.
The need for a School for Unlearning Zionism conditions the fact that Zionism (as a national ideology setting the base for defining the State of Israel as a Jewish state and thus creating conditions that will always stand in the way to true equality) is taught.
I have a rich archive full of screen shots and pictures, articles and words which tell my story – a story that is not mine alone. This is part of our heritage. I sort it into categories, directions, looking for junctions. The material is there. Little stays hidden and the original intention does not seem to be ashamed of itsself. „It is the price we must pay“, we are taught. „Of course we wish it were different.“ „We are lucky to be the strong ones“. Strong and afraid. Privilege at it’s best.
Before going to the army, army was almost all we would talk about. We begin the tests at 16 and the speculatoins and secret competition aswell. It is an obvious part of our social duties and if we doubt ourselves or have critical thoughts it is mostly within the logic of a system that „must“ exist, with or without us. So we best do our best within the given conditions. This translates to arguments such as „I will then at least be the moral soldier at the checkpoint“. The checkpoint is already given. It is only the question if you will be the „good“ or the „bad“ soldier standing at it. Moral behaviour lays within the framework of the Checkpoint as a given fact.
In my archive work I place things in relation to eachother diagonally, horizontally and virtically. Searching for points where the personal meets the collective, where the specifics are abstract. „Being moral in an unmoral space“ is a collective story and recognizing this is in itself a moment of Unlearning. Our thoughts are born within systems of power that produce knowledge. Also the critical ones.
At the age of 13 I secretly wanted to die in a bus bombing and was ashamed to tell this to anyone. Because the fascination of it, of becoming not only the child of your parents but a child of the country, forever young and naive, felt forbidden and there were no words at my exposal to talk about these forbidden feelings and romantization of death. A few years later I invented a new strategy of becoming a hero without having to die but still involving busses. I would look around after getting on a bus and sit next to the man I thought looked most suspicous (big bags were always a good hint) start talking to them in a friendly manner, asking about their lives and families, telling about mine. I made an effort to smile alot. This way they would surely regret what they were planning to do and we would all arrive safely at our destinations after they didnt „press the button“.
Unlearning practices recognition of power/knowledge production/the taught. It reflects on the invisible to some and the inevitably visible to others. Unlearning is a space of negotiating the starting point of a conversation. Unlearning is recognizing that starting points and points of reference in a conversation (be it public, be it private, be it in between) are not accidental and we must actively search for the voices that are missing in the conversation being held and maintained with so much effort and for so many years, and listen to what they have to say. From the beginning. Unlearning Zionism is parting from a collective that by it‘s own definitions conditions racism and inequality.
The knowledge born in Unlearning is based in the act of redefining what knowledge is and contextualizing existing knowledge in ways that were not given.
Joint struggles between Palestinians and Israelis are tempting – to live together, learn together, struggle together. But we Jewish Israelis need to do our homework if we mean equality seriously. We must create spaces for finding ways to deal with our pain and loss aswell as our supremacist identity, shame and guilt. We must create space to reflect on collective responsibility and teach ourselves new ways to understand and speak about violence and terror - without making it part of the burden of our partners in joint spaces. We must train ourselves to understand what unequal power relations really mean. And if, after that, we can articulate common goals and spaces of joint resistance then we pose a danger to not one system of power built and based on unequality, oppression and exploitation, but to all of them.
These disciplines of power live deep in our bodies. About a year ago I am a Jewish Israeli on a Palestinian bus line on the way from the West Bank to Jerusalem. When we reach the checkpoint, everyone starts standing up and getting off of the bus. I too stand up and find myself standing in the way in the middle of a crowded aisle calling to a girl who seems to have forgotten her book on the bench when another girl turns to me and says in English – “not you”. I realize people are starting to get back on the bus from the front after being checked by the soldiers outside. Hurrying to my new seat I see the line of humiliation and dehumanization through the window. A soldier enters the bus. I am surprised (and ashamed to be but) I am afraid of him, and at the same time I am wondering if I maybe know him. He takes a quick look at me sitting in the back of the bus and I am rehearsing the made up story in my head (in German because being “international” there makes me feel more confident) of why I am in this bus in the first place as an Israeli Jew. That’s it, I, the person who shouldn’t be on this bus in the first place am the one left untouched. Discipline of supremacy is invisible to those who are part of the political majority.
In my childhood when we would come for long visits in summertime I would play with my friends in the abandoned “Arab Pool” at the edge of the Kibbutz (which my grandparents cofounded). Even when calling something by “its name” (or at least giving it a historical context - and not one that goes back to the bible but one that leads directly to 1948) we seem to stay beside the point, even if (and maybe because) we recognize some sort of regret. The sign next to it today reads it was built in the time of the Ottoman Empire.
The real pool, on the top of the Kibbutz6, was built with the help of money donated by a holocaust survivor, a member of the Kibbutz, who received compensation money from Germany. She decided that the right thing to do with the money was to share it with the collective. Accepting compensation money was a hard dilemma and many people refused to take the money in the first place. I guess this was her compromise.
The School for Unlearning Zionism is an invitation to join a collective practice where the stories of another feel like memories of our own. And together we are quicker and braver in finding the questions to the answers we were given. We cannot expect to stay the same and for „things to change.“
Unlearning is a tool and practice of collective responsibility we can bring with us when we join movements of resistance against oppression and for freedom and equality. ✳
1. David Ben Gurion was the first Israeli Prime Minister and described Israeli Settlement in Palestine as „Making the desert Bloom“ 2. He is a consesus figure in Jewish Israeli Society and many people have small sculptures of him standing on his head. 3. From the official Website of the Israeli Knesset: „Other ceremonies are held at memorials for the fallen, educational institutes, military bases and public institutions. The media broadcasts programs on the fallen, their acts of bravery and their heritage. A national service is held at 13:00 in memory of victims of terrorist acts, taking place at the central memorial in their honor at Mt. Herzl. All services during this day are held by the local authorities and IDF representatives. The torch-lighting ceremony at Mt. Herzl is the closing event of the Memorial Day, and the opening ceremony for Independence Day.“ (https://knesset.gov.il/holidays/eng/memorial_day_eng.htm 4. This flower grows locally and is known for not losing its strong red color when drying. It is a protected flower and is arabic it is known as „Blood of the Messiah“/“Blood of Christ“ (dam al-Massiah, دم المسيح) This is a sentance used often on Memorial Day. When I told this story to a person from Lebanon I met in Berlin they said „sounds familiar“. My reflex („the taught“) said – „It isn’t! It is our special kind of dead hero!“ – and really I knew I was Unlearning something because the specific was abstracted. 6. This is the place I was born. When I think about what home smells like, I think about our Kibbutz.