July 24, 2023
I am horrified and sad. Perhaps grieving is an even more accurate description of my current state.
These are my emotions about what is transpiring daily in that place that is both Israel and Palestine.
These emotions are so much different than those I felt when I made my first trip to what was just Israel more than40 years ago. I traveled with my wife to see the place I had been told was my homeland, a place where the stories of my bible had taken place and, since 1967, a place where Jews were powerful. I came with little understanding of who Palestinians were and of their history on this same land. I came knowing them only as people who wanted to destroy this heroic bastion of progress and democracy that I could claim a share of.
In reading my journal from that first trip, Israel’s Arab citizens are invisible. Palestinians existed only shadow figures reflected in conversations of risks and dangers. I was joyful about connecting with “my” history, with meeting Israeli Jewish friends and talking about Israeli politics. Palestinians were present then only as the other to be feared. Their presence in the land was limited to a few abandoned cities and “quaint” Bedouin encampments encountered on the way to another place of Jewish importance.
On that first trip, I could ignore the reality of this troubled land. I could ignore a more complicated history of Jewish settlement, perhaps more actively described as colonization, which replaced and erased Palestinian life. I resonated with the words I heard from A. B. Yehoshua, the noted Israeli novelist, who in a Haifa University classroom looking out on the Mediterranean Sea had told me that only by being in a Jewish state, one where time, garbage, and politics existed within a Jewish context, could I be a Whole Jew. And, he went on, living in the diaspora I would only be a half-Jew. I resonated as only one who lived and worked in a Jewish bubble could. I saw Israel as very special and it drew me back, trip after trip, like nowhere else on the earth.
But each trip back did something surprising. Rather than reinforce my myopic allegiance to the fantasy Israel, it allowed me to see a reality that was more troubling. Those feelings could only live as long as the reality of Palestinian life and history had no place in my experience. It became less and less possible to be in Israel, to keep up with news about Israel without seeing the darker reality.
On one trip, as I walked along the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, it became starkly clear that the Arab Quarter was very different from the Jewish Quarter. Different not just because Jews lived in one neighborhood and Palestinians in another. It was different because the trash was picked up by the city in one place and not in the other because there was new construction in one area and not in the other. It was different because there was a sense that one was “ours” and the other “theirs” and never the difference should be forgotten.
Trip by trip it became clearer that there was a side of Israel, the Jewish state, which was brutal and inhuman. It was there to be seen at the checkpoints, at the wall that separated one from the other, at the border crossings. By policy and action, Israel treated an entire population as “the other”, “the lesser other.” It became clearer where power resided and who had responsibility for the situation on the ground, the poverty and ghettoization that marked Palestinian lives.
And as I saw this more clearly, I also began to be open to another narrative, a Palestinian narrative. In 2013, Israeli Journalist and liberal Zionist Ari Shavit published the dual narratives that were running around my head when he published “My Promised Land.” Here’s Leon Weiseltier’s synopsis of what I was now ready to recognize:
“ He proposes that Zionism was historically miraculous and he proposes that Zionism was historically culpable. “From the beginning, Zionism skated on thin ice”: There were another people living in the same land. “The miracle is based on denial,” he bluntly remarks. “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland.” Shavit’s narrative of the massacre and expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda by Israeli forces in the war of 1948 is a sickening tour de force, even if it is not, in his view, all one needs to know about the war or the country. “The choice is stark,” he unflinchingly declares: “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda…Shavit makes his choice. He does not reject Zionism, though he does not make excuses either. He condemns the perpetrators of the crimes, but he does not condemn the war for survival and self-determination in which the crimes were committed: “If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the state of Israel would not have been born. . . . They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.””
I could no longer ignore that “dirty work” had been done. I could no longer look at the results, the creation of a Jewish homeland after thousands of years of exile, more than I can accept the American mythology that erases Native American history, Black history, and white, Christian culpability.
Earlier this week Peter Beinart used his weekly video blog for a reflection on his similar mixed emotions during his current visit to Israel/Palestine. Entitled, Divided Against Myself in Israel-Palestine, Beinart in a short 15 minutes (and I think it is well worth your viewing his entire v-blog) captures the two sides of my relationship with Israel: a warmth and connection, next to an active anger bordering on hatred for what it has become, and frustration (?)at the impossibility of having a serious discussion about this troubled reality..
And it is an impossibility.
Days ago, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus spoke to an audience of progressives which included a number of Palestinian Americans demanding recognition of their people’s reality. They were doing nothing more than any other oppressed minority is called upon to do, asking for recognition of their reality. She responded by telling them she could do that, see the world through their eyes and recognize their reality:
“As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible…while we may have arguments with whether or not some of us on stage are fighting hard enough, there is an organized opposition on the other …”
But in daring to do this Jayapal crossed the line and shuts down any debate. Calling Israel, a racist state is just not to be allowed. Israel is to be protected from its own reality. Unlike Shavit, we are not allowed to recognize that racism is the justifiable price that the Israeli government has and is willing to pay for their dream of a Jewish homeland. Calling them out, as Jayapal did, is not to be allowed.
And so, the might of the pro-Israel community across our country punches back with full force. It is not a matter to be discussed, it is a matter to be damned as not wrong on the facts but out of bounds because it is “antisemitic.” As reported by Axios, “A group of seven Democratic members of Congress, all Jewish, drew up a letter of protest against Jayapal’s remark, seeking to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism…’Israel is the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people and efforts to delegitimize and demonize it are not only dangerous and antisemitic, but they also undermine America’s national security. We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the…country.”
And Jayapal backs down and meekly apologizes for recognizing a truth. And the House of Representatives votes, including Rep Jayapal, votes for a resolution that in less than one-page wipes away every nuance, every troubling fact, every hint of reality:
“That it is the sense of Congress that
(1) the State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state
(2) Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia; and
(3) the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”
This is the world I live in. I remain ambivalent. Israel is/Palestine is a place that calls me back. It draws me back with a sense that my history is tied to that land. It draws me back to a land of beauty and with a sense of how much history was beneath my feet with each step.
But also, it is a land that is not just mine where, in my name, another people are being wiped away day by day, policy by policy.
I know that we will only see justice when we are able to see injustice. I know that my Jewish people cannot find redemption through acts of violence, bigotry, and hatred. I know that we cannot reclaim our history by erasing our history.
And I feel very alone in what I know.