Photo and story Luis Feliu
Israeli-born Palestinian-rights and peace activist Avigail Abarbanel continues to feel the wrath of family and Jews everywhere after turning against everything she’d been taught about the state of Israel and how it came into being.
But she is no longer afraid to speak out against her own ‘tribe’ and urges Jews everywhere not to remain silent and to speak up for human right and against injustice, especially in Palestine.
Ms Abarbanel is on a lecture tour of Australia promoting the book Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists, a collection of 25 essays by Jewish peace activists around the world, which she compiled and edited.
The 48-year-old psychotherapist told an audience at Byron Bay Community Centre on Saturday that up till around 12 years ago, she had always believed in the ‘Israel right or wrong’ mantra, and like most Israelis did not question the actions of their government towards the Palestinians.
She says it’s expected in Jewish communities around the world that all Jews embrace Zionism and give loyal and unquestioning support for Israel and those who criticise Israel are often excluded, vilified and threatened.
Ms Abarbanel, who lives and works near Inverness in Scotland, said that even when she was living and studying in Australia years ago, she still accepted much of what she’d been taught about Israel and Palestine and had even written a thesis on the Australian response to the Kristalnacht, the 1938 attack on Jews in Nazi Germany.
‘I, like many other young Israelis, believed everything we were taught about Israel; and it happens at an early age, we were made to feel proud that we made a country bloom out of the desert, a technological wonder,’ she told the audience of around 40 people.
But that was all to suddenly change as her academic career grew, especially after reading books by historians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which greatly influenced her, including works by Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe.
‘I was horrified and didn’t realise how much brainwashing had gone on for years during my childhood, in school and the military service and how much fear was a part of that. I know I was a Zionist till much later when I questioned the whole process and what had happened in 1948 [when the state of Israel was declared],’ she said.
‘Reading all this upset and confused me and made me question everything I had felt before; I also felt a sense of betrayal that I had been lied to – how could I be so naive?
‘I had a strong sense of rightness and loyalty of us (Israel) being there and what’s right and wrong,’ she said.
But she didn’t mince her words on the issue, saying what’s going on in Palestine is ‘ethnic cleansing’, a land-grabbing ‘occupation’ and ‘colonisation’.
‘Israel wants more land; they have no intention whatsoever of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict,’ she said.
‘I gave up my Israeli citizenship in protest after realising what was going on. I felt strongly that it was wrong to create a nation at the expense of another people; I drew the line at that.’
Ms Abarbanel says many Jews like her who do speak out against Israel are vilified and branded traitors, but she believes if more Israelis and Jews around the world stopped being ‘afraid’ and spoke out against injustice, they would feel better about themselves.
During her Australian tour so far, the pro-Israeli lobby has tried to close down or disrupt three of her speaking events, including one at a recent Melbourne Jewish cultural festival.
The Australian Jewish News labelled her in a headline an ‘Israel basher’.
She says she believes in a one-state solution, a non-religious democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which she describes as an ‘apartheid state’.
At one of her Melbourne talks, Ms Abarbanel said she was asked by a Jewish audience member ‘why can’t the Palestinians get over it, like the Aborigines have in Australia’.
Brisbane man Ray Bergmann, a contributor in the book, said that when he attended a Jewish youth camp in Sydney as a youngster, he realised a Zionist songbook was wrong in historical fact and simply ‘biased propaganda’.
‘The songs we were taught to sing portrayed Arabs in a negative stereotype and I complained they were teaching us an obviously skewed history to justify what could be understood as an enormous war crime in perpetuating the exclusion of Palestinians from their own homeland since 1948, and justifying a Jewish exclusivity that seemed little different from antisemitism – just a reversal of victim and oppressor!’ Mr Bergmann wrote.