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Letter from Birzeit, #4: Unclear Identity

October 10, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Unclear Identity

September 11 This post will be a bit different from the others, and I would really appreciate peoples’ comments on this one because the following will be me trying to figure out something about which I’m still feeling very confused. Today was the first time I have been involved in a discussion on the Holocaust outside of the United States. This conversation took place during my Colloquial Arabic class, when my teacher brought up the fact that it’s forbidden (ممنوع) to speak against Mohammad here but not to speak against the Holocaust, whereas in Europe it is completely fine (مسموح) to speak your mind about Mohammad but not to discredit the Holocaust. Some of us began to disagree with him, pointing out that a) there’s actually more room for that in Europe (although your political career would probably be over), and b) one shouldn’t compare Mohammad and the Holocaust, but should rather consider the ramifications of speaking ill of Jesus in the West as similar to doing so for Mohammad in Muslim countries. My teacher then said something about how some people here will say their opinion is as follows: “The Israelis [yes, he said “Israelis” and not “Jews”] took their own weak and sick people and burned them.” Like what you're reading?It was about this time that I started to get extremely upset. He then told us how to say “Holocaust” in Arabic (محرقة) and asked us why we couldn’t use the same word for what Israel was doing to the people in Gaza (namely, using white phosphorus and essentially burning people in the “same” way as the Jews were; he also compared Gaza, the “open air prison,” to a concentration camp). This spurred a heated discussion in which everyone who spoke seemed to agree that the word “holocaust” should not be claimed by one people to use for one event, but that genocides across the world should also be able to be called holocausts. I was the one person to raise my voice against this. I tried to explain in Colloquial Arabic what I can barely even explain in English. Reserving the term “Holocaust” to what happened at the hands of the Nazis is a matter of respect and remembrance; I pointed out that the same is true of “Apartheid,” a word that many have used to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine and that only some have accepted as appropriate. That fact does not at all take away from how horrible and wrong the treatment of Gazans (or any oppressed and persecuted people, for that matter) is, and it does not negate the obvious truth that this, like the Holocaust, is a form of ethnic cleansing. But it is not the same, and it should be able to be named in its own right as opposed to appropriating the same word used to describe a ghastly and unique occurrence in another part of the world. No one seemed to understand where I was coming from, and I was yelled at: “Why should they have the exclusive right to use that word?” “How is it different?” etc. Never have I been the only Jewish person in a discussion of the Holocaust. And I don’t even identify as Jewish anymore, but it’s still a part of my past and the Holocaust is still an extremely meaningful and touchy subject, and an awful event that happened to a people that I once considered “my people.” I found this morning’s discussion very confusing and disorienting, not only because it was a discussion on the Holocaust — and on the Holocaust in a completely new manner and setting than I’d ever experienced — but also because it made me think about my own religious and/or historical identity. Am I still a Jew in any sense of the word, or have I abandoned my Jewishness completely? If so, what explains my intense reaction to today’s discussion that practically brought me to tears (I really did feel attacked and alone in this argument about such a sensitive topic, and I almost had to leave the room — which is what my teacher said a Jewish student in his class did two years ago when the teacher said that what was happening in Gaza was a holocaust)? Should I have mentioned to the class that I was Jewish, or is it inappropriate to “play the Jewish card”? I shouldn’t have to be Jewish in order to care so deeply about this. Right? I don’t know if anyone reading this has recently or ever experienced confusion or grief over their religious identity, or their identity with regard to the history of their religion (does that make sense?), but if so, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this. I’m not quite sure where I stand or how much I accept Judaism as a part of who I am — or how much I have pushed it away — but that is something I’d really like to figure out over the next few months. Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.