In the fourth grade, I stopped saying the pledge of the allegiance. While the other children clapped their hands to their hearts, I stood, my arms limp, lips still. It was not an act of rebellion, nor did I intend to disrespect the United States. I’d simply decided—after several classmates had tried to convert me to Christianity—that we were not “one nation, under God, indivisible.” As a Jew, I felt that my place was elsewhere.
One morning, as the chairs around me scraped the floor, I didn’t bother getting up. The collective voice began, “I pledge allegiance …” I stared at my desk, tracing the lines running through the laminated wood.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around. My teacher loomed above me. “… And to the republic …” she said, along with the children, as she gestured for me to rise.
My stomach lurched. I dreaded being sent to the principal’s office—this was the Deep South where they still used the paddle.
As I picked up my backpack, my teacher shook her head. Not sure of what to do, I stood. She nodded and walked away.
Decades later, I stand under a different flag—blue and white, bearing a Star of David. But, as a dual-citizen American-Israeli journalist, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with flags. They reduce nations and people to a symbol, a strip of cloth to be stuffed into critics’ mouths.
In March, I published an article discussing how West Bank settlements have rendered the two-state solution impossible. I argued that the only just way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a shared, democratic state.
The peace process is at a standstill. And with direct talks coinciding with the end of the settlement freeze, the future doesn’t hold much hope. Israel will keep building; the West Bank’s Jewish population will continue to swell. A withdrawal will be impossible; apartheid unconscionable to the world. A bi-national state is an eventuality we must embrace.
To me, the article was innocuous, a statement of the obvious. But to one reader, who I guessed to be an American Jew, it was worthy of a death threat. “You should be blown up,” the reader wrote, accusing me of being a “Hamas-lover.” He went on to send a second email wishing me cancer and cursing my parents for having me. I wasn’t frightened. But the emails—which have too many expletives to publish here—stung. It was the words “fake Jew” and “anti-Semite” that hurt the most.
And I felt the sting again when two of my articles turned up on the website of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. One, originally published on Al Jazeera English, discussed the growing presence of Jewish settlers in Yafo, the village in south Tel Aviv, and the trouble posed by gentrification there. The other, written for Maan News Agency, a Palestinian site that is based in the West Bank, detailed the human toll of the blockade on Gaza.
Both articles were filed on the Hamas site under the topic “Exposing Zionist Terrorism.” One displayed my name, prominently, in the title. There I was, below a Hamas flag. My jaw tightened. Hamas employs anti-Semitic propaganda. Its charter is riddled with conspiracy theories that blame us, the Jews, for conflicts the world over. It is easy to understand why the West has maligned Hamas as a terrorist group that wants to wipe Israel off the map. But, as I considered my knee-jerk reaction, I wondered if it wasn’t misplaced. Hamas is a political party that was democratically elected. It has considered recognizing Israel within 1967 borders.
And then, as I argued with myself, I tipped back the other way.
Hamas solidified its power with a violent coup. It suppresses internal dissent within the Gaza Strip. And rather than recognizing the “Zionist entity,” it grows fat off taxes collected from the tunnels that run supplies in through the blockade.
Yeah, but why are the tunnels there? Who started the blockade? Who put Gaza in a vice grip? Israel.
Journalists often point to the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Strip as the start date of Israel’s siege. Some commentators will cite 2006 as its start, saying that the blockage was a response to Gilad Shalit’s capture. Both are attempts to link the Israeli action to political events. And both are incorrect. The squeeze began during the First Intifada, with the permit system that put an end to Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
But why? Was it a security measure? Or was it collective punishment?
Still wondering who the terrorist is, I closed the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades site. Unable to concentrate, I got on Expedia. I played with travel dates and destinations. Manila. Saigon. Mumbai. I pictured myself in faraway places, surrounded by unknown languages. There, I would have the luxury of silence.
Anti-Semite—it’s the first tactic pro-Israel commenters use. An easy response to criticism that skirts around the substance of the article, it’s like putting a hand before the reader’s face. “Don’t look here,” it says. The hand closes, the fist turns, the finger points. “Look there.”
Other comments work in a similar way. When I write about Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, I get remarks like: “But look at how badly they’re treated in the Arab world.” When I cover the plight of migrant workers and the state’s plans to deport families that include Israeli-born children, the response is: “Why don’t you write about what’s happening to laborers in Kuwait or Lebanon?”
Oddly enough, I once heard the same thing from an Arab acquaintance.
In 2008, less than six months after Hezbollah took to the streets to flex its muscles, I was in Beirut for a visit. I’d accompanied a Lebanese friend and a male colleague of hers to watch a documentary that takes an in-depth look at the plight of Palestinians.
We stepped out of the theatre into the night. Hamra district was dark, blue, and blurry. But the images from the film were still sharp in our eyes—1948, the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” in black and white, barbed wire, dirt roads, streams of refugees.
We were silent for blocks. Our heels clicked on the pavement. My new acquaintance draped his suit jacket over his arm, unbuttoned his collar and rolled up his sleeves. He raked his fingers through his blonde hair. He hurried forward, keeping a step ahead of us.
“I don’t know how you can stand to live there, with those people,” he said over his shoulder, spitting out the last word distastefully. An educated, cultured man who eases between three languages, he wasn’t going to call Jews what he really thinks we are.
I looked to my hostess for a cue. She’d introduced me only as “a journalist who is working in Israel.” I used a quick glance to ask her if he knew that I’m Jewish. She opened her eyes wide and raised her eyebrows high—a signal that I was not with “safe company,” that I ought to keep my mouth shut.
So, I did. We got into my friend’s car. I sat in the back and said little as my new acquaintance tried to persuade me to give up on Israel and move to Lebanon to write about Beirut instead.
When we dropped him off, I bade him well.
My hostess and I went on to dinner. I thought of the many meals we’d shared together in India, where we’d met as travelers and not as citizens of enemy states. She’d stared at me in wonder as we ate, musing aloud how it was possible that I looked so much like her sister. When the electricity went out in the small village we’d visited together, she’d recounted her memories of power outages during the Civil War and the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.
But in Beirut, as we shared mezzes, we made small talk. I thought of her colleague, who walked a step ahead of me and spoke to me over his shoulder rather than looking me in the face. I wondered if we hadn’t missed an opportunity, all of us.
I think this of commenters who, albeit for different reasons, offer the same advice my acquaintance did: I should look away, put my attention elsewhere.
And I have the same simple answer for both: Because the world has taken to equating Judaism with Israel, wherever I go, I’m in the shadow of this flag. My responsibility begins here.
Mya Guarnieri is a freelance journalist and writer based in Tel Aviv.