This Saturday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We’re in a time where there are people out there hijacking the phrase, “Never Again,” trying to take it away from being about Jews and making it about the Palestinians instead. The world’s oldest archive of the Holocaust in London was just vandalized with the word “Gaza” spray painted in red on top of it. Stores and restaurants all over America and the world are being defamed if they’re Jewish. We’re in a time that’s eerily reminiscent of pre-Holocaust days, and it’s scary.
Through it all, we as Jews, never lose hope. The story goes — they try to take us down, we survive and then we have a holiday to celebrate it. Plus, we really never know what change can occur in a small amount of time. Even when things feel bleak, Hashem can create miracles.
Dani Ishai Behan grew up Jewish but was completely against Israel, then he had a profound turnaround. Now he’s one of Israel’s biggest advocates. Let this Q&A with him be a lesson that you never know where others will end up and how the story will reveal itself.
Tell me about your background. How did you grow up? Was it in a way that led you to be anti-Zionist?
I am of mixed ancestry. My father is white (of Irish descent), and my mother is Jewish.
We weren’t religious, nor were we culturally observant. We often visited family members (who *were* observant) and I would receive Hanukkah gifts every year from my grandparents, but that was the extent of it. I was also forced to attend my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah when I was 13.
For the most part, I was just a lower middle class, hyperactive, shy, autistic American boy who was into video games. I took after my dad in terms of appearance (even more so in my youth), so nobody knew I was “different” until they saw me with my mother or one of her relatives. It would sometimes result in me getting = made fun of or asked “where are your family from”, but nothing serious.
The first 10 years of my life were spent in a relatively poor and somewhat dangerous part of New Jersey. There were a lot of drugs going around, the education system was pretty horrible, and it wasn’t safe to go out at night. But I didn’t care. I was happy. I fit in with most of the other kids at my school and even got to watch the Memorial Day parade from my porch.
Some years later, my parents decided that the neighborhood we were living in was “too seedy” and moved us to a neighboring town. It was “safer”, more pristine, more high-maintenance, and with higher quality education. The kids around me reflected that environment. I was aggressively bullied at my new school for being poor and autistic (“retarded”, as they would put it). I hated it. I wanted to go back to my old town.
Seventh grade is when I first learned about the Holocaust. In retrospect, this was pivotal. My relatives had always insisted that being Jewish meant belonging to a religious faith and that our ancestry was “Polish and Russian”, but these proclamations clashed with everything else I had heard and with everything I was seeing around me.
First, how am I a Jew? I don’t practice Judaism. Yet, because my mom is Jewish (and not even religious at that), I am too? Despite not having any religious beliefs? I never thought that made any sense.
Second, if my mother’s ancestry is “East European”, why are most of my relatives from that side olive or brown-skinned? Why are most of the Jewish kids I go to school with dark and ethnic-looking, despite having ostensibly Germanic surnames? Why did my mom cook East Mediterranean food? Why did my cousin speak Hebrew at her Bat Mitzvah? Why do virtually all of our holidays and folk stories center on the Middle East? Why am I seeing so many decidedly non-European symbols (e.g. hamsas), clothing items, and artwork (it was so colorful and vibrant compared to European art) in this place and in my relatives’ homes?
I knew, even back then, that these weren’t “European” things. They felt different. I assumed they were Egyptian or something like that. I didn’t know.
While we weren’t given a whole lot of information about the Holocaust, what we did get left me feeling terrified and even more confused than I was before. We’re just a religion, yet we were murdered for being a race? Our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations were hauled off to nightmarish death factories for no other reason than their “blood”? And the entire “civilized” world just stood by and let it happen, in many cases even cheering them on or actively helping them do it?
I remember asking my teachers why Nazis distinguished between “Jew” and “German”, and why we were treated as a race. The answers I received were useless, typically something along the lines of “because the Nazis were KRAAAAAAAAAAAZY with a capital K”.
All of that was enough to scare me away from openly identifying as a Jew. What was even the point? There was no geographic origin or civilizational heritage I could point to and be proud of. At least not that I knew of. All that existed was a nebulous black hole of bleak ghettos and pointless suffering. Jewishness was, in my mind, a mark of shame and humiliation and a target painted on my back. A burden and “responsibility” that I did not want. I wanted nothing to do with it.
Over the next 15 years, I pretended to be a non-Jew. If anyone asked me about my background, I would just tell them that I was Irish. If they saw my darker relatives and asked “where is the rest of your family from”, I would glibly state “oh, they’re Italian/Puerto Rican/Mexican” or whatever.
It was also around this time (if memory serves) that I began to immerse myself in punk culture. There were two other kids at my school who were into it. I never approached them directly. I was too shy for that. But seeing their jackets, shirts, and pants decked out in all these band names and logos I had never seen before made me curious. It was different from anything else I had seen or what I saw other kids doing at the time. And I hated everybody else around me, so that was a plus. I wrote most of the band names down on my binder and searched them out in my free time.
I took to it more or less immediately. It was ADHD-friendly music for angry outcasts. And I was an angry, ADHD-addled outcast. I was obsessed. Were it not for these new bands and this new world that had just opened up to me, I don’t think I would’ve survived high school. The underground had become my home, proverbially speaking. My sanctuary from all the bullshit.
There wasn’t a lot of anti-Zionism in the “scene” back then. It wasn’t until… I want to say 2009, that it really became prevalent. I wasn’t equipped to answer any of the things I was hearing, and I was still in my programmatic “the far-left is always right” state of mind. There was no compelling reason to doubt what they were saying. So I didn’t.
What was the turning point?
I don’t know if I can ascribe it to any one thing. It was more a combination of things – an array of misgivings that snowballed over several years.
The atmosphere of Israel/Palestine discourse was different from anything else I had seen. It was obsessive, hyperbolic, often hateful. There were undertones of antisemitism to it, which were exacerbated further by how they responded to (mostly imaginary and hypothetical) criticisms and charges of antisemitism. There was a palpable distrust of Jews underneath it all, but I didn’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to identify what was happening.
What stood out to me more than anything else was how unwilling these (mostly) white kids were to let Jews set their own boundaries or define their experiences. You had non-Jews sanctimoniously appointing themselves the ultimate arbiters of what is/is not antisemitism. Jews weren’t allowed to define these parameters. Only gentiles could have the final say. This bothered me a lot.
Jews who disagreed with their self-serving definitions (Alan Dershowitz and Abe Foxman were brought up a lot) had conspiracy theories attached to them. I couldn’t imagine them treating any other oppressed group this way.
Although I suppose that was the point. They didn’t see us as a proper ethnic minority – just privileged white people with a quirky, exotic twist and a unique responsibility/”parental” role to play in the struggles of “real” minorities. This, again, clashed with what I had known and seen throughout my life. I knew it was wrong. I knew we were more than just a religion. I knew we were an ethnic minority and that we were deserving of more respect than we were being given, but I wasn’t equipped to fight back.
At some point in 2011, I met two Israelis in a private Facebook group about video games. We were in a political discussion and I was spouting some nonsense about Israel being a colonial state and committing genocide in Gaza. Naturally, they pushed back.
They picked apart all of my misinformation. They were patient with me – probably more than I deserved. Certainly more so than I would have been, in their shoes.
Learning of our indigeneity to Israel was the real turning point. It was something I had never considered before but, at the same time, it was so obvious. All of these contradictions I had in my mind about who we are and our place in this world resolved themselves almost instantly. Everything I had seen and observed over the years finally made sense. That was the moment when it all clicked.
I felt liberated. Joyful, even. But at the same time, I was angry. Had I known all of these things from the outset, my life might have panned out differently. I went through childhood and early adulthood without this crucial knowledge of who we were, and who I was. In that sense, I feel like my youth was stolen from me. I’m still bitter about it.
I began doing my own reading and thinking – something I was (ironically) afraid to do at any prior point in my life. I had entrusted everything to these priests in checkered scarves and let them do my thinking for me. I didn’t realize it then, but I guess I was part of a cult.
Out of all the friends I had back then, I am only in contact with two. Everybody else either distanced themselves from me or told me, in no uncertain terms, that my presence was no longer welcome. It was an extremely disorienting time. My entire world came apart. Without going into too much detail, I fell into a proverbial abyss that had nearly consumed me. I almost didn’t make it out.
What would you say to someone who is nervous to stand up for Israel and was in a similar group as you?
The thing is, I wasn’t even “Zionist” at the time that I pushed back against the anti-Zionist dogma that pervaded my spaces. I was still sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. I just didn’t agree with the idea of displacing 7 million people, nor with their insistence that Jews were foreign colonizers in the land.
I didn’t see myself as “standing up for Israel” back then. In fact, I still don’t.
I am a supporter of Jewish indigenous rights and equality. I want Jews to be seen and understood for who and what we are, not what our enemies wish to see us as. I want us to be dignified and treated like everybody else. I am not a lawyer for Netanyahu or the Israeli government or anything like that. I find the very thought of becoming something like that dreadful.
What I realized is that decolonization, indigenous rights, anti-imperialism, and so on all have meanings. If you’re not serious about what these terms represent, don’t identify with them.
Where do you draw hope from now for the future?
I’m low on hope these days. Antisemitism has become acceptable and mainstream in a way that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, or ever again. I am often beset by apocalyptic feelings. That said, I am seeing more and more people “waking up”. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, saying that my articles and posts changed their entire outlook and even their lives for the better. That sort of thing keeps me going.