Why Adirondackers should care about Palestine

I was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Maryland, and lived in the Adirondacks for almost a decade. None of these places are “homeland” to me, and the concept of a “homeland” has always felt uneasy — loaded with assumptions about belonging and ownership over the Earth. While living in the Adirondacks I felt great reverence for the mountains, fields and chain lakes that were my temporary home. It was during this time that I started to think deeply about the place I was born and my relationship to Jerusalem. I’d already distanced myself from the Zionist identity I’d been raised in, but never really explored how to love a place without feeling a political right to it. I became an activist for Palestine while living in the Adirondacks as I allowed myself to confront the complexities of loving a place that can never belong to you.

The Adirondacks are also an occupied land. Carved out for conservation by the descendants of European settlers wanting to preserve access to forests and lakes for recreation. Today the Adirondack Park belongs primarily to New York state and not to the Haudonoshaunee nations, the Abenaki, the Anishinaabe, and others, who managed and lived here for long before Europeans arrived.

Years ago, I decided I could no longer call myself a Zionist if it meant supporting the ongoing system of apartheid in the modern state of Israel; if it meant supporting the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. Most importantly, if having a “homeland” clouded my moral and ethical intuitions that everyone deserves safety and freedom — was it worth it? I tried to wrestle up a definition of Zionism that didn’t mean these things, but could never get around the reality that a universal Jewish right to the Holy Land required negating the human rights of others. This negating often manifests itself through anti-Arab prejudice, fear and politics of ethnic supremacy. At the time I thought that relinquishing this world view also meant relinquishing the love I felt for the land that I was born on, the beauty of which is described across Jewish liturgies that remain precious to me. I suffocated any nostalgia I felt for the landscape of Palestine, working to train myself to understand that it wasn’t “mine” to love. Connecting to the Adirondacks helped teach me that love for a place need not be understood through the political constructions many of us have inherited for belonging — for instance “nation,” “citizen,” “homeland,” even.

The first Zionists emerged in the dual context of Jewish emancipation in western Europe and anti-Jewish pogroms in eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Jewish thinkers sought to answer the “Jewish Question” that plagued European politics, and Ashkenazi (European) Jews hoped to balance becoming fully “European” while still maintaining their distinctive Jewishness and traditions. Zionism was a minority viewpoint and one of many possible answers to the “Jewish Question,” and it was not an inevitable outcome of its historical moment.

In the 1890s, European philanthropists started buying land from absent landlords in Ottoman-controlled Palestine for the purpose of Jewish resettlement. By the interwar period young Jewish idealists increasingly settled those newly purchased properties, a pattern that quickly spread out across some of the most fertile lands of Ottoman Palestine and slowly displaced indigenous tenant farmers in their wake. This process made possible the large-scale displacements of 1948 when Israel declared independence from Britain. This Nakbah and Israeli independence violently pushed over 750,000 indigenous people from their homes and villages, a foundational system of forced displacement that continues to haunt both Israeli citizens and Palestinian refugees today.

It is undeniable that Jews were internally displaced and persecuted in Europe. However, this truth does not negate the harm that Zionist settlement of Palestine caused indigenous communities there. We can see historically, that many populations who’ve experienced trauma often reenact that harm unto others. Particularly within colonial systems that treat land as something to be bought and sold, and in doing so, build paradigms of scarcity and exclusion. In a world increasingly defined by mass displacements, climate catastrophe, and migration, how can we relate to the land beyond these restrictive concepts and translate our love of place (be it the Holy Land or the Adirondacks) into an ethic of responsibility?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi scholar and dear friend of the Adirondacks, writes of European arrivals in North America, “Immigrants came to these shores bearing a legacy of languages, all to be cherished. But to become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy,” (“Braiding Sweetgrass,” 58, emphasis mine). I am struck by the generosity of Kimmerer’s words — the idea that nativity is attainable, not through possession, but through a “grammar of animacy,” an effort to converse with the landscape, to respect life (human and otherwise), vibrancy, and memories of the places where we arrive. The Zionist project relies on erasing this vibrancy and memory, insisting that thousands of years of life in between the time of the Hebrew Bible and the twentieth century are unworthy of this respect.

Starting this week, an environmental film series aiming to bridge understanding between the North Country and Palestine kicks off in Lake Placid. As a scholar of Jewish thought, this reminds me of the trans-local project of the Talmud putting rabbis in conversation across the boundaries of space and time to ask questions of belonging and making a home wherever you find yourself (see Daniel Boyarin’s “A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora,” e.g.). As we continue to witness the horrific violence of Israel’s assault on Gaza it is everyone’s moral responsibility to ask how we can reimagine our relationships to the places we say we love. How can we imagine “home” in a way that no longer justifies exclusion, violence, and displacement? Register for the free film series and fundraiser for Gazan families by visiting https://tinyurl.com/ee3ury3u.

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Zohar Gitlis lived in the Adirondacks for many years (from Blue Mountain Lake to the Champlain Valley, and the Saranac Lake region), working in non-profits, restaurants, farms, farm to school and food justice initiatives. Gitlis left her home in Paul Smiths in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Gitlis is now pursuing a doctorate in Religious Studies at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island (traditional lands of the Narragansett people). Gitlis’s research focuses on Jewish thought and philosophy, philosophies of “place,” ecology, and histories of colonialism and decoloniality.


First European Arrivals to the Adirondacks: https://www.nps.gov/articles/adirondacks-europeans-and-american-colonists.htm

Adirondack First Nations: https://www.6nicc.com/, https://www.tupperlake.com/all-are-welcome-here-0, https://www.bluemountaincenter.org/mission

Israeli Apartheid: https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid

On Palestinian and Zionist history pre- and post-1948:

Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Second edition. Cambridge Middle East Studies 18. Cambridge: University Press, 2004.

Shafir, Gershon. Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Khalidi, Rashid. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. First edition. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2020.

Krämer, Gudrun. A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel. Translated by Graham Harman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

In text citations:

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. First edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Boyarin, Daniel. A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812291391.

My prior research with extensive bibliography: https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/xnyf-nf30


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