Israel’s war on Gaza instigated this Canadian filmmaker to renounce her Israeli citizenship — despite the dire personal cost 

Yuula Benivolski is an Israeli artist and filmmaker who has made Canada her home for the past 23 years. Last November, Benivolski made the heart-wrenching decision to renounce her Israeli citizenship at the consulate in Toronto.

“It isn’t a decision I made lightly,” she said in a video posted to her Instagram for her 23,000 followers — myself included — where she looked  visibly strained. Benivolski held up her Israeli ID and her army exemption card as a sort proof of her previous status (but also clarified that she didn’t serve in the army).

 

 
 
 
 
 
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It’s easy to assume that Benivolski’s decision has everything to do with Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza in response to the attack by Hamas on October 7 where 1200 civilians and at least 233 were taken hostage. Subsequently, Israel’s counter-attack—now in its 100th day—has been reported as the most destructive bombing campaign this century has ever seen with a stunning 23,000 civilians (including 79 journalists) killed, and almost two million displaced. Last week, South Africa brought a genocide case against Israel to The Hague—what media outlets have called “imperfect but persuasive.”

But the truth is that Benivolski’s renunciation of her home country was a long time coming.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” she said. “In fact, from the moment I learned about the real history of the place where I grew up—the history that wasn’t taught to us in schools or even talked about while I was living there. It’s been a really long process that took two decades.”

But “Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza,” as she puts it, was no doubt a profound part of the equation. “The amount of casualties has reached catastrophic proportions. [I had to] respond to that.”

Benivolski grew up in a town that was located on the Lebanese border and says it was bombed every other day throughout her childhood. “The rockets were either homemade, old, or not very precise,” she explained. “Even I know two people who died in my hometown from rocket fire.”

She learned how to put a gas mask on herself and her siblings when she was ten and they were seven and six, “just in case my parents weren’t home,” she said. “I participated in dozens of drills. I learned to differentiate between incoming and outgoing rocket fire just so I could stay in bed a few more minutes.” She spent much of her childhood going in and out of bomb shelters. Any time she didn’t spend in a bomb shelter was spent wondering if she should be in one.

“During my childhood I lived through two major wars,” she said. “One of them was the Gulf War, to Intifadas (Palestinian uprisings), 26 suicide bombings—one of which she witnessed herself.

Benivolski grew up with the messaging that this was all normal. The idea was drilled into her that it was because “we’re Jews and everyone around us wants to annihilate us.”

One would think that living on the border would make her town the focus of the state’s resources, but that was far from the case, she said. “Israel is an entity that is built on hierarchies where a person’s value and humanity are tied directly to their identity.” Because of this, “unwanted” populations—“poor people, brown people, immigrants from countries that aren’t wealthy are often placed in forgotten places. [They were] placed along the borders where the government doesn’t have to concern itself with them as much.”

The authorities often used violence to assert their power, Benivolski said. It was also something she experienced herself. “Abuse and bullying are how people tap into their own sense of superiority and entitlement and assert themselves. I was on the receiving end of this dynamic more times than I’d like to remember.” 

She said that Israel repressed segments of its population. “They’re the ones who have the nobility of sacrifice dangled in front of them like a carrot. The illusion is that one day you can join them.” This is why many of her neighbors and the children that she grew up with were so eager to join the army, she explained. “It was a way of getting accepted into society.”

She said that what often ends up happening is that the youth from impoverished towns are assigned to the worst jobs that are available within the army. “Not only that, the kids whose parents are from Iraq [for example] become border guards and they’re the ones who engage with the Palestinian population.”

At age 18, when Benivolski refused to join the army, it wasn’t because of any sort of political awareness, she said. “[Even though] I was living in a small town and had no idea what I was doing, I [still] recognized the violent, macho energy that I remembered from the bullies of my childhood.”

Years later, Benivolski returned to Israel at age 36 when her grandmother died. Armed with her Canadian passport, she went through all the checkpoints and traveled to the West Bank. She saw that little had changed from her youth. “I saw the soldiers and how they treated people depending on where they were from,” she said. “I saw the double sets of roads: one for Jewish Israelis and one for Palestinians. I saw the eight-meter concrete wall cutting into towns, separating communities, separating family members.”

Benivolski recorded the video during the ceasefire or “pause” and hostage deal in late November.  Now the bombing is back in full swing and the United States has asked Israel to scale down its war effort, because of the world’s outcry at the carnage being played out on social media— particularly children. But arguably also because of President Biden’s unpopularity for stopping just short of unconditionally supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“[Still, the bombing] doesn’t seem like it’s going to end anytime soon, and even Israel officials are saying that after the pause they intend to keep bombing for months at least,” she said. 

Part of the reason why Benivolski is renouncing her citizenship is because she feels that peace is not Israel’s goal. “I don’t know that it ever was,” she said. “I’m embarrassed it took so long but I think I understand why. Israel spends a lot of time and money inciting its own people against each other.

Benivolski is all too aware of how the decision to renounce her home country is going to affect her life, particularly her relationship with the people closest to her—“not just in Israel but also here in Canada.”

Her suffering in recent months has been two-fold. She fears losing her family over her decision, but she is also heartbroken over the horrific plight of the Palestinian people. Still, she doesn’t regret what she’s done. “I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” she said. “The process that led to this decision was filled with pain and anger and grief.”

Although she felt an immediate sense of relief once she made the decision, there has been an enormous personal cost to her.

I reached out to Benivolski and she shared with me that her family is not speaking to her; it’s the main reason why she isn’t open to doing any interviews—at least for the time being. “I don’t want to exacerbate things,” she told me. 

Benivolski is dealing with her pain the best way she knows how: by channeling it into her passion. “I have an [art] show opening up and I’m working day and night,” she explained to me.  

Benivolski is currently working on a long-form statement that she plans to release at some point. 

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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