February 2, 2023
More than 40 years ago I made my first trip to Israel. Having grown up as a minority in a country where being Jewish meant being different and even strange, I was captivated by landing in a place where being Jewish was the norm. Coming from a home that counted its history in just a few centuries I was enthralled by being in a land where history seemed to stretch out for centuries. And coming from a place whose history did not seem mine, I was thrilled that under every footstep was a sign of a past moment in Jewish history, a place that made real the stories I had been taught as a child in religious school or read about in history books. It felt, at that time, that this was my land.
On that first trip, I was drinking the Kool-Aid in deep gulps.
But, there was something amiss and unsettling that planted a seed that has spouted over the years since then. Something that has been watered and fertilized by every return visit I made until it flowered and the missing pieces and the pain of that land became very clear and impossible to ignore.
Left out of the picture that Israel was painting about their democracy and humanity were the lives of the Palestinians who also claimed this land. Even forty years ago, their isolation and victimization would have been clear if I opened my eyes. Driving from Lake Kinneret toward Jerusalem on a back road, Palestinian towns and refugee camps screamed out “what about us?” Even from a moving car, it was easy to see that these places were different, that they were not treated in the same way that Jewish communities were. Theirs was a poverty that stood apart from even the shabbiest of Jewish neighborhoods I had visited. And the anger and frustration of a forgotten people were their as well, in the burning tires and boulders on the roads we drove.
It was also clear, looking back across these years, that Israeli Jews knew something was wrong even then, but chose to see it as a problem of bad Palestinians needing to be controlled by good Israelis with big guns. That was clear just walking down the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and seeing the number of young men and women carrying their rifles or the places where their rifles were stacked so their owners could take care of some business.
The story that official Israel told the world and the story that the American Jewish communal leadership wanted to build American Jewish life around ignored the inherent inequity of modern Israel. Together they wanted us to believe in a country that was noble, brave, strong, and a beacon of modernity. They wanted us to believe that Palestinians were violent, threatening foreigners who wanted to take our homeland away. They wanted us to ignore what was there to be seen.
Trip by trip it became clearer and clearer to me how this well-crafted story of Israel and the Jewish People was a lie and was being used as a weapon against anyone who dared to raise a question or, even worse, speak in support of Palestinian rights.. Year by year, trip by trip, it became harder and harder to ignore the reality that something was very rotten in Israel and that its Jewish majority and the Jewish community living in the diaspora were the culprits in a great crime against humanity.
On one trip I was hosted in the living room of one of the earliest Jewish settlers in the then new town of Ariel, a town that had been built on Palestinian land across what was supposed to be the border dividing the two states we were dreaming of. The dream we once waxed about in the hope of the “two-state” solution. The men and women living their suburban lives in Ariel were not planning to leave, they were not looking for a solution that included Palestinians. Their life was markedly different from the Palestinians living behind the walls and fences that surrounded Ariel. This was a vanguard of what has become a flood of hundreds of thousands of “settlers” who have taken over a land that was not theirs. It was there to be seen when I visited it years ago and there to hear about in the words of Ariel’s people. It was a glimpse of the future – an uncomfortable future if you were Palestinian.
Trip by trip it was impossible not to see the growing suburbanization of Jerusalem on land that was also over the “green line.” It was there to be seen as friends of ours moved to these new communities because they offered a quality of life that was unaffordable in within the 1948 borders of Israel, a quality of life that was not offered to their Palestinian neighbors. And this growth was proudly sold as part of a strategy that would increasingly give Israeli Jews control of more and more land. It was easy to hear Israel’s political leadership, liberal or conservative, speak about their need for security as a rationale for stealing more and more land.
And when the Palestinian people acted out their frustration, often violently, they faced the full power of an Israeli Army. And with each violent expression of the Palestinian voice came more and more restrictions and more and more isolation and separation. From south to north a separation wall was built to “protect” Israel’s Jewish population from the consequences of their policies and hard-heartedness. Miles and miles of “tunnel roads” were built to connect Jewish settlers to Jewish Israeli cities, roads that Palestinians were forbidden to drive upon.
Could one not see how this further degraded Palestinian life? I did on one trip when I drove down the road I had once taken toward Jericho on an earlier trip, a road which had taken me from the bustle of east Jerusalem into the Judean desert, passing by small villages and Bedouin encampments, descending down toward the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. But that road was now blocked before I could leave the bustle of Jerusalem by a high concrete wall, a barrier that separated one people from another and disconnected the lives of families and of an entire people. This was a wall I saw on another trip that had been built with little thought of the harm it did to Palestinian lives. Gazing down on it I saw a an orchard of established olive trees blocked off from the homes of the Palestinian owners. There was no way for those farmers to tend their fields and earn their living. And there was no concern for this harm from the Israeli builders or for those who were telling us that Israel was a beacon of democracy and human values.
What was being done year by year was to steal more and more land and isolate an entire population. Security for Jews was the ultimate and only rationale needed to excuse these actions.
Year by year it became clearer to me that the comfort I felt in coming home forty years ago was there only because I was willing to ignore how complicated the reality of Israel was and is. It is not only Israel but Israel/Palestine. It was not just a land where I could trace my historical roots as a Jew, but a land where my Palestinian brothers could trace their roots as well. We both find that our history sits under each footstep.
Trip by trip I witnessed the growing divide between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis who had relationships with Palestinians lost those human ties. Sitting with two friends, one a Palestinian jeweler and one a Jewish holocaust survivor who has lived in this land since the founding of the state, I saw firsthand the growing chasm. Once their families had had a close relationship, visiting in each other homes and celebrated milestones together. Now they lamented that the relationship they had built would not be recreated by their children. If their relationship has once been a sign of hope that both peoples could live in peace on a shared land, that was no more. The cost of occupation and of Israel’s drive for the supremacy of its narrative was the hope of peace.
Pushing the Palestinians away allowed Jewish Israel to bask in ts fantasy of this being their land alone. That fantasy included that the land was empty when, in 1948 it became a state, a Jewish state.
This fiction has grown into a core belief of Israel’s Jewish citizens and too much of the Jewish community of the diaspora. If Palestinians are just stateless people who haven’t the right to anything, their protests are easy to ignore and denigrate. If Israel reacts with anger and might when Palestinians revolt, they are just being terrorists and deserve to be brutally beaten back. If Jews want or need more land it matters not who owned it before or who is living on it when those people are Palestinian because they have no rights to anything. They have no ties to the land at all.
Amjad Iraqi editor and writer at +972 Magazine recently observed about the reality of Israel that “ for many Israelis, such reflections…are best avoided in order to preserve a simple, rigid worldview: Palestinians hate us for no reason, they attack us without cause, and so we have no choice but to beat them down. More critical Israelis may instead lament the worn-out aphorism of a “cycle of violence,” seeking to draw some moral parity of responsibility and harm between the two sides.”
The result, from Iraqi’s perspective, is that the myth of the past that I have rejected remains alive and well. “This power imbalance lies at the heart of a fundamental difference in the way each side tends to speak about the other’s violence: when Palestinians spotlight Israeli brutality, they are demanding the end of their oppression; when Israelis point to Palestinian violence, it is usually to justify that oppression. It is yet another link in the chain that Palestinians are trying to break: the world’s belief that their lives only matter if their colonizer decides they do.”
Looking back this was true decades ago when I first visited Israel/Palestine. It just took me years, more visits, and painful introspection to recognize I could not continue to look the other way, to enjoy the feeling of coming home if it meant ignoring the complicated truth of its history and the human cost of its mythology.