My Return to Israel
An Exciting, Exhausting, Energizing, Depressing
& Overwhelmingly Intense Trip
April 28, 2005
Published in Our Town Brookline (June 2005)
My blog: current thoughts on this and other matters
My Israel/Palestine Photos
sat in Kibbutz Hatzerim's dining room across from Ruthie Elad. We were
talking about her late husband, Gidon, who in 1964 had introduced me to
a blend of Jewish identity, socialist community, and social justice.
The irresistible combination of Gidon's intellectual humanism and
Ruthie's warm nature and hot tea changed my life.
January lunch came during my first visit to Israel since abandoning
plans to live there in 1973. This time I had come for a month, but
catching up with old friends was just one goal. Beyond nostalgia, I
sought to explore the story so often left out of mainstream American
discourse, certainly American Jewish discourse: Israel's impact on
The groundwork for my shift from
confident teenage Zionist to conflicted aging non-Zionist was laid at
the beginning. I told Ruthie I remembered Gidon criticizing Israel's
morally unacceptable and politically short-sighted institutionalization
of Jewish dominance. Before occupation, before intifada, before Israeli
policy became right-wing property, this Zionist kibbutznik already
abhorred Israel's dismissal of its Arab citizens' humanity.
sought to replace Hatikva, Israel's national anthem expressing Jewish
yearning for Zion, with a song its Arab citizens could also embrace. He
wanted Israeli schools to teach every Jewish child Arabic, so that
Israel could identify with the Middle East linguistically and
culturally. He rejected calls for Greater Israel, expulsion of
Palestinians, and permanent occupation as dangerous violations of
social justice and Jewish values.
I told Ruthie, "I thought that was Zionism." She nodded. "So did he."
Roots in Zionism
their kibbutz movement sent Ruthie and Gidon to New York to work with
Young Judaea, the youth organization I had stumbled into, I had
resisted Zionist arguments. Eventually though, I became a believer. I
learned Hebrew, rallied for Soviet Jewry, and performed with an Israeli
folk dance group. After high school, I went on Young Judaea's Year
Course in Israel, where I experienced not just Jerusalem class work and
kibbutz life, but the Six Day War's tension and release. I returned to
the States knowing I would go back to live. Five years later I did so,
with a group of former Judaeans I had helped organize that planned to
start a new kibbutz.
Throughout those years I retained
Gidon's skepticism. The frank assumption of Jewish superiority and Arab
expendability in some Zionist strains appalled me. At Brooklyn College,
I studied Arabic, preparing to see the other side. I helped my kibbutz
group reject pressure to move into Occupied Territory, and
unsuccessfully proposed that we accept Arab members. Even after leaving
Israel when my group splintered (the majority created Kibbutz Ketura
near Eilat, the rest mostly returned to the States), I held on to the
notion that Israel could reconcile Jewish statehood with democratic
Challenging the Status Quo
I first criticized Israel in print
in 1982, when Ariel Sharon's army let Lebanese Christian Falangists
massacre Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and then
dropped the painful subject once again. But over the past few years
I've been drawn back. Decades late, I'm finally trying to follow the
advice that I routinely give my students: challenge basic assumptions.
that challenge led me back to Israel to re-visit my past, explore the
present, and accumulate impressions to mull over in the future. I could
go for only a month, but after three decades that month was crucial to
let me move on.
For more than two weeks I traveled by bus,
train, taxi, and car, ate in restaurants and people's homes, went to
laundromats and bookstores, a camera store, a shopping mall. I hiked,
took photos, relaxed on park benches. I visited friends, relatives, and
new academic contacts - half a dozen in Jerusalem, others in the
Negev's Midreshet Ben Gurion, in the religious town of Ramat Beit
Shemesh, and on four kibbutzim, including Ketura, where only four Young
Judaean founders remain. Talk invariably turned to what everyone calls
Seeing the Palestinian Side
see "The Situation" from the Palestinian side, I needed help. My
Brooklyn College Arabic had long faded away, and an adult-education
course last fall was too limited to restore it. I knew West Bank travel
would be confusing, and I didn't relish calling strangers to invite
myself over to chat. So I joined a two-week tour organized by Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
(FFIPP), an anti-occupation group run mostly by Israeli and American
Jewish professors. That FFIPP would present just one side didn't
concern me. I wanted to see the effects of Israeli policy. I already
knew Israel's rationale.
The tour delivered as promised.
At universities in Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus, we met with students
and faculty struggling to carry on despite the occupation's
disruptions. Outside the universities, we met Palestinians in many
settings, including a research center analyzing refugee data, a mental
health center treating Palestinians tortured in Israeli jails, and a
demographic agency documenting Jewish settlement expansion. We waited
at crowded checkpoints and drove many miles to avoid them, gazed up at
both sides of the Separation Wall, visited refugee camps, outdoor
markets, and small villages.
FFIPP also introduced us to Israelis. In Tel Aviv we met combat reservists in Courage to Refuse who refuse to serve in Occupied Territory. Others from Breaking the Silence
showed us photos and testimonials recounting their routine abuse of
Palestinian civilians in Hebron. In Jerusalem, organizers of The Campus
Is Not Silent described their work at Hebrew University.
coincidence, our tour coincided with the final two weeks of the
Palestinian presidential campaign. With campaign posters the
omnipresent backdrop, we heard Palestinian hopes for post-election
improvement after four years of violence and 37 of occupation.
Everything we saw and heard pointed to a longing for normality -
getting to school or work or a doctor's visit without checkpoint
delays; harvesting olives now growing on the wrong side of the
Separation Wall; walking to the corner store without harassment by
Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers. The knowledge that Israel and the
United States favored Mahmoud Abbas, the expected President, encouraged
hope that his election would loosen harsh restrictions, end collective
punishments, and restore the Palestinian economy.
yearning for normality was accompanied by one for justice. Many worried
that if Israel refuses to go further than in past negotiations, Abbas
will agree to an unacceptably truncated Palestinian state. Without
borders on the pre-occupation "Green Line" and contiguous territory
allowing easy travel and commerce, any peace agreement would offer
little more than a national flag. An agreement that fails to establish
Palestine's capital in East Jerusalem and resolve the Palestinian
refugee problem will lead not to normality and peace, but to permanent
resentment. Palestinians are willing to live alongside a Jewish State
(many told us so, and polls confirm it), but only as equals whose
grievances are dealt with fairly. s
academic told us Abbas has two years at most to bring results before
people lose patience and turn back to Hamas and other hard-line groups.
Another worried that Palestinians were overoptimistic, expecting to
drive soon to shop in Jerusalem. If Israel prevents that,
disillusionment could turn into rage.
Hopes for Resolution
Israel I also discovered optimism. Some think Abbas will succeed where
Yasser Arafat failed, achieving enough of a Palestinian state to quiet
things down. Others think security requires nothing more than clamping
down on terrorists or finishing the Separation Wall. I didn't hang out
with Israelis who want to expel more Palestinians, establish Greater
Israel all the way to the Jordan River and beyond, and demolish
Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock to make way for the Third Temple. My
friends and other contacts had more ordinary desires. They want to stop
worrying when their children get on a bus, and to go to work or a movie
without a security guard going through their bags. Even anti-occupation
leftists who think Israel has done alestinians wrong don't relish
incoming rockets and suicide bombings.
optimism, reinforced by post-election efforts to avoid high-publicity
escalation, at least clarifies that there are both Israelis and
Palestinians who can envision resolution. I wish I could share that
optimism, but instead I agree with those who don't believe Israel will
go far enough. Israelis who think Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza
demonstrates a willingness to also leave the West Bank overlook his
deputy Dov Weissglass' acknowledgment that the pullout's real purpose
is to reduce pressure to do more. Both Israeli intransigence (seen in
recent decisions to continue building the Separation Wall with
thousands ofPalestinians living on the Israeli side and to add
thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers east of Jerusalem) and the
expected violent response make future stability unlikely.
if Israel leaves the entire West Bank and agrees to a Palestinian state
with an East Jerusalem capital -- unlikely, but conceivable if
pragmatists rather than super-nationalists take charge -- the most
difficult issue remains: Palestinian refugees. At a Ramallah refugee
research center, a sociologist and a former Palestinian Cabinet
minister agreed that past Israeli negotiators understood most refugees
won't move to Israel if they're offered compensation to rebuild lives
in Palestine or settle in countries ready to absorb them. But Israeli
refusal to grant a formal Right of Return could be a deal breaker. For
Palestinians, Return is an ideal, a crucial recognition of Israel's
responsibility for the Nakba, their 1948 Catastrophe.
Israelis, Return is a threat. The assumption that a higher Palestinian
birthrate will someday lead to a Palestinian majority makes Israeli
refusal inevitable, even among many who acknowledge the injustice their
country's birth inflicted on Arab residents. Perhaps the knowledge that
their government has treated its Arab citizens so poorly adds to fears
that an Arab majority would respond in kind. More central, though, is
that an Arab majority would end the Jewish state's Jewish identity
unless it resorts to South Africa-style apartheid. That possibility is
hard for me to imagine, but the right-wing assertion that "democracy is
not a Jewish value" makes many as uneasy today as Gidon Elad was forty
years ago. Even the Israeli Supreme Court wrestles inconsistently with
the conflict between equal rights and Jewish privilege.
wrestle reluctantly with a further implication: If Israel itself is
destined for an Arab majority -- a possibility further in the future
even without returning refugees -- what rationale remains for two
separate states rather than one?
Exploring the Feasibility of a Single State
for a single democratic secular state from Mediterranean Sea to Jordan
River used to strike me as insincere subterfuge. Over the past few
years, though, as Israel's intentionally created "facts on the ground"
made complete West Bank withdrawal politically unfeasible, and as I've
tried to adopt a universal-justice perspective rather than a tribal
Jewish one, I've come to recognize one state is more justifiable than
two. Zionism's separatist path no longer seems noble necessity as much
as exclusivist anachronism.
I don't expect a single state,
which would itself raise many complications. International momentum
envisions two. Indeed, when Israeli professors at a January conference
in Jerusalem began talking about one future state, their Palestinian
counterparts dismissed the subject as impossible. In the end, if Abbas
and Sharon produce an agreement that satisfies both populations, I will
be relieved. But the lengths to which Israel will still resort to
ensure its future Jewish identity make me uneasy.
returning to Brookline in late January, I resisted resuming my ordinary
routines. Even today my visit's sights and sounds hold me. I follow the
news, and periodically I expose my uncertainties on my weblog. Perhaps inevitably, I'm looking into returning next year, this time for more than a month.
much of my time in Jerusalem, I stayed at the Notre Dame Hotel, just
barely in Arab East Jerusalem across from the Old City's New Gate. When
I'd leave the building, I could turn right toward the center of Jewish
Jerusalem less than 10 minutes away, or left toward the closer Arab
downtown across from Damascus Gate. In both directions I could find
people confident -- despite everything -- that things will work out. I
hope to discover, when I return, that their sense of the future proves
more accurate than mine.
My Israel/Palestine Photos
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