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Jerusalem Again:
A Personal Political Journey

Dennis Fox

August 10, 2004

Published in The Pedestal Magazine (October, 2004)

Also see
My blog for thoughts during this 2004 trip and two later visits in 2006 and 2008
More extended reactions
after this 2004 visit

I’ve stalled long enough. Barring full-scale war or family crisis, this December I’ll walk Jerusalem streets once more. It’s been thirty-two years since abandoning my decision to live in Israel forever, thirty-eight since my first Jerusalem sojourn. This time I plan a month of political and personal exploration. Wandering on both sides of the Green Line won’t bring absolute clarity, but still, despite lingering pessimism, I hope to shake my ambivalence-induced inertia.

Immersion over the past few years in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians completes a certain symmetry. My political coming of age began in Brooklyn in 1964 when my initial teenage resistance to Zionist appeals suddenly crumbled. My newly meaningful, emotion-spawned Jewish identity and the socialist Zionism that inextricably accompanied it sparked a lifetime of radical analysis and political activism. Long after my Zionism faded away, the concern it inculcated for social justice and social change shaped my political choices, my academic career, and my relationships. Today, after decades of avoidance, I’m finally returning to where I began, trying to address rather than sidestep the Israeli-Palestinian future I once thought I would share.

I’m not sure how unusual the dual-focus trip I’m planning really is. Casual tourists vacation in less volatile locales. Yet Israel still draws Jews, some motivated to visit family and friends, others to experience life in, and to support, the Jewish State. Most, though -- like most Israelis not in the military -- never venture into Palestinian territory. The West Bank and Gaza also attract visitors, including activists (some of them Jewish) who document and protest Israel’s Occupation. Many do little traveling in Israel itself beyond the ride from the airport to Jerusalem or to prearranged meetings with Jewish and Arab dissidents.

The Internet offers detailed, troubling descriptions of Palestinian life under Occupation and of Israeli concerns and fears. You don’t have to go to Jerusalem or Ramallah or Hebron or Tel Aviv to know what is going on. But I have to.

I plan to join a two-week fact-finding delegation organized by Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP), which describes itself as “a network of faculty endeavoring to achieve just peace and end the occupation in Israel/Palestine and the region.” I’ll spend an additional two or three weeks on my own -- following up on contacts made through FFIPP, visiting relatives and friends from my past, making my way to varied organizations and events. I’ll talk to people, keep a journal, take photos.

At some point I hope to visit Kibbutz Ketura in the far south, founded by graduates of Young Judaea, the American Zionist youth group that transformed my life. In 1966-67, after finishing high school, I spent ten months on Young Judaea’s Year-in-Israel Course. A year after returning to Brooklyn, in my role as a national board member of Young Judaea’s college branch, I organized the founding meeting of one of two groups that later merged to create Ketura. Four years later I moved back to Israel, planning to become a citizen despite my growing discomfort with Israeli policy. Instead, I soon returned to New York, months before Ketura’s formal birth. I’d like to see it finally, to talk with the few founders who remain, perhaps to imagine what might have been.

Over the next few months I will explore some of what seems to me relevant to the larger political questions and consider how my own background affects my perspective, but already I have an inkling of where I’m headed. Indeed, discomfort with my position’s logic was a primary reason I avoided the topic for so many years. Even today, rather than try to tie down every loose end, I hope more generally to get a better handle on what outcomes might be both workable and just, if such a combination is possible, on what factors stand in the way, and on what I might be able to contribute.

I already know that many will criticize my political position, whatever it is or becomes.

In a 2002 Salon article, I urged my comrades on the pro-Palestinian left to avoid the superficial argumentation and sloganeering all too common on both sides of complex issues. I encouraged "the justice-based left [to] seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression inevitable." In a follow-up article in Tikkun, I argued that “only principles that secure the legitimate needs of ordinary people on both sides of the Green Line can lead to a workable moral solution. Anything else will fail to ensure justice for all, and will probably ensure safety for none.”

Following my own advice isn’t easy. Although I’ve described my position vaguely as “somewhere in the middle,” it’s a big middle, containing sharp disagreements about problem origins and possible solutions. Many partisans, especially on the pro-Israel side but also some across the table, foresee a practical compromise based on the appearance of perfect balance between equally wronged peoples. I understand the impulse, but although neutrality makes sense for referees, it can hinder justice seekers. A superficial neutrality that ignores power differences makes a just solution impossible. Still, even neutrality would help counter the American political mainstream’s bipartisan Zionist leanings, demonstrated this election season by the lack of disagreement between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

When I try to apply the justice principles I rely upon in other political arenas instead of automatic neutrality or the Zionist perspective absorbed in my youth (asking the tribal question, “Is it good for the Jews?”), the key goal has been clear to me for some time: ending Israeli domination of Palestinian life. There’s likely more than one way to accomplish that task consistent with other crucial outcomes, chief among them the end of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But ending domination, in my view, takes precedence over preconceived or preexisting outcomes and institutions.

I confess that my political analysis doesn’t always rest easily. My emotions lag behind. Jewish loyalty sometimes seems necessary rather than outmoded in a world where justice principles are hardly applied universally and those on both sides are reduced to, and by, terror. I waver in the face of family interaction, historical memory, personal biography. Although I’ve been an atheist since before my Zionist decade and I remain unconnected to any religious institution, and although resurgent Jewish fundamentalism seems to me as alienating and dangerous as the Islamic and Christian versions, I still feel Jewish, even when I sometimes wonder what that can mean now that Judaism and Zionism are so inextricably intertwined. There have always been Jews who criticized the Jewish State’s actions and underpinnings, but despite my evolving critique it pains me to join them. Relieved that some among my family and closest friends encourage me, I dread hurting others who will, I know, recoil from what I have to say.

Newly resolved to return to Jerusalem, a few weeks ago I began brushing up on my rusty Hebrew. There was a time I could engage in substantive conversation. Though my knowledge gaps are now obvious, making my way through an introductory textbook clarifies how thoroughly I assimilated the basics. My review reminds me of sitting every morning on the subway to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, immersed in a Hebrew text instead of my homework. I was excited, committed, optimistic. I had found my way. It’s a good memory, despite my current distress with its broader ramifications.

I’ve also begun trying to resurrect the two years of Arabic I studied at Brooklyn College. Being in Israel during the Six Day War -- the Occupation’s birth -- strengthened my belief that every Israeli should speak Arabic. Back then, even some of the Israelis who had taught me Zionism sought reconciliation and social justice. Zionist humanism seemed possible.

The Arabic returns more slowly than I’d like, though much of the grammar -- its similarity to Hebrew’s a painful reminder of common origins gone wrong -- has stayed with me. Once I re-learn the alphabet and feel ready to move on, I’ll try to learn the conversational forms my professor failed to teach in classes aimed at reading and writing rather than interaction. I won’t become fluent by December, but I’d like to manage more than tourist pleasantries. I’d like to begin to understand.

My visit won’t matter much to anyone other than me, but I’ll write about it nonetheless. There's some reassurance in knowing that my ambivalence-tinged sympathies are widely shared despite the greater visibility of hardened positions and despite the likelihood that some who agree with my views will have little patience for my mixed emotions. The way ahead remains uncertain, but it’s time to move forward.

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