An American Jew’s Changing Perspective On Israel

“We’ll die before we give it to them”

I was 11 or 12 years old the first time I noticed that something was off. Growing up in the patriotism-charged aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks, my upbringing was heavily informed by the flag-waving and jingoistic verbiage, the “us” and “them” that defined post-9/11 America.

I should point out that two years before, my parents had become somewhat religious and enrolled me in a Modern Orthodox Jewish school. Boys over the age of 10 wore pants; girls had to wear skirts that covered their knees when they sat down. Daily morning prayers were segregated between genders. All food bought in the school kitchen was kosher. I once asked a rabbi if it was OK to study Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and he replied “You can study it, just don’t believe in it.” My cousin Yael, who was my age and in the 6th grade, was called a slut by other kids in school because she had a “boyfriend”—also in our grade—who she held hands with. In short, the pivotal years of my childhood leading up to high school—mercifully, I switched back to public school—were heavily colored by indoctrination.

Despite this, there were moments of astonishing clarity. I suspect all children experience them at one time or another, but mostly these lucid moments pass without anything changing, and ultimately children become a part of society that their parents, schoolteachers, and friends influence them to be. It was during the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 and terror was raining down on Israel. We would hear about suicide bombings and shootings and shudder with horror. We were also told, either directly or implicitly, that when Palestinian civilians were killed it was because they were being forcibly used as human shields by terrorists. But mostly, any discussion of casualties during the Intifada focused on murdered Israelis, not Palestinians. One time during these discussions, I asked my best friend Menachem, a lanky, bespectacled kid who was raised in a strict Orthodox home, why Israel didn’t just give Palestinians the land they wanted. In my innocence I assumed that if the Palestinians had control over the West Bank and Gaza, the problems would stop. It’s been thirteen years and I was as shaken by his reply then as I am now:

“We’ll never give them the land. We’ll die before we give it to them.”

The beginnings of doubt

In high school, my parents buttressed my public education by encouraging me to volunteer as a counselor at a once-weekly day camp for mostly Latino Jews in San Diego. It was run by Israelis, most of them trilingual in Hebrew, Spanish and English (in that order). We sang the Israeli National Anthem before starting camp. Almost every week we planned activities that revolved around Jewish and/or Israeli culture or holidays. The Shoah was mourned; Israeli Independence Day was celebrated. I don’t remember there being many overtly political discussions.

I was always a mensch (a Yiddish term for a goody-two-shoes), and it was largely thanks to my inherent studiousness that I enrolled in all-honors courses in high school. Learning Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in Advanced Placement Biology was an earth-shaking moment for me, and while my feelings on a Divine Creator drifted towards uncertainty I firmly doubted the existence of God as He is described in religious texts.

My reading list in high school and university—I majored in English Literature at an elite liberal arts college—was littered with books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When. I began to understand both how easy it is to mobilize a populace to hate some shadowy, arbitrary “other” group, and more bluntly, how fucking terrible human beings treat each other.

I include this insight into my intellectual trajectory because as obvious as it seems to me now it was not until I began doubting religion—as well as social groups adhering to religion as their principal moral foundation—that I was able to honestly examine Israel and its place in the world as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

By the time I entered college I was still overwhelmingly pro-Israel, but the armor had cracked. I had doubts. When I went to college I was surrounded by progressive students and professors, mostly of the Caucasian and middle to upper-middle class variety. It was an eye-opening change after a lifetime spent in Republican-leaning San Diego. This was where I met people who had not just been to Israel for Birthright trips, but people who had gone to Gaza after the 2009 summer war that left destruction and death in its wake. I had classmates who had been part of the weekly protests in Bil’in and other demonstrations in the West Bank.

Initially, I was a bit skeptical of the things I heard. By this point I was able to accept in a vague sort of way that some of the things Israel did were disagreeable, but not necessarily illegal. Apartheid seemed like nothing more than a dirty word meant to smear the country. In truth, I was hampered by the fact I had never been there myself. More than any other issue important to me as an American citizen, Israel seemed like the one place too complicated and nuanced to rely on the media or even word of mouth.

Drifting left

At the same time that I began feeling like the only way to understand Israel was to go there, I began identifying more and more with the political left.

Shocking as it may seem, in the 2008 presidential election I threw away my vote to Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party candidate. As a disclaimer to any Republicans (including my own relatives, who I love despite our opposing views) reading this article, I want you to know that I was heavily influenced by reading Ayn Rand in high school (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem—all of them). Romantic as her ideas are, they’re cool on paper but callous in real life. Know your enemy, I say.

Once I woke up from my Libertarian-induced trance and realized how self-aggrandizing it was to support laissez-faire capitalism in the wake of the financial markets crash in 2008, I also realized that I wanted nothing to do with a Republican Party that didn’t care for the environment, wanted to teach creationism, fight the war on drugs (not to mention unnecessary wars abroad), control women’s bodies, refuse to regulate banks, student lending, or the insurance industry, let the poor starve while eliminating taxes on the rich, and so on and so forth. Never mind that the Republican Party was vehemently pro-Israel; only the most hard-line Zionists believe that Obama and the Democrats are anti-Israel. The only difference between the two is that Obama is willing to set conditions under which Israel should conduct itself, and the Republicans—influenced heavily by their fundamentalist Christian base—see Israel as part of God’s plan to restore the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and therefore view Israel as blameless.

My growing liberalism led me to associate Israel’s most vocal defenders with policies which have been poisoning America since Reagan took office. Yet despite my leftist views, I still kept my doubts about Israel to myself. Until I went there and saw it, I simply didn’t feel confident enough to believe what I had heard.

Finally visiting Israel

After working for a year in a quasi-financial services job and saving a ridiculous amount of money—plus some help from my grandparents—I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Europe in August 2013 (that’s what this blog is for). It was my first time outside of North America, and I drank deeply from the well of culture and history that the Old World has to offer. I also knew that I would make time to visit Israel, and the opportunity finally arose this past February, when I met up with many American and Panamanian relatives for a cousin’s bar mitzvah.

I was genuinely excited and happy to visit. For all the dialogue about war and terror and occupation, Israel is an incredible place worth visiting. Tel Aviv’s reputation for nightlife did not disappoint. Masada was spectacular. Seeing the Kotel in Jerusalem made me feel a nostalgia I also felt while wandering the old Jewish quarter of Córdoba, the great bastion of Jewish life in Spain during the Middle Ages.

I stayed with some distant cousins who live in Tel Aviv and was introduced to countless Israelis through my cousin Noam. They were, without exception, worldly, cultured, and fun to be with. I didn’t see racist epithets written against Arabs or Muslims on the walls, didn’t witness harassment of the diverse mix of ethnicities and nationalities who live in downtown Tel Aviv, and didn’t see Arabs or Africans riding the trains suffering abuse from other riders. I visited Bar Ilan University on a tour with my family and noticed two girls wearing hijab walking undisturbed. While I didn’t have the chance to go myself, I knew of many Arab-only villages and towns scattered about Israel where life happens just like it does in any other democratic country.

In short, I felt that the accusation of apartheid in Israel—and here I refer specifically to Israel proper, not the occupied West Bank, and certainly not Gaza—is something which, not surprisingly, cannot be seen or verified by someone like me. Just because I didn’t see it does not mean it does not exist. I do think that Israel’s critics are eager to label it as an apartheid state–mostly due in part to an over-zealous desire for justice but also as a byproduct of the menacing and real threat of anti-Semitism creeping into the rhetoric against Israel.

That being said, there are clearly documented aspects of life in Israel which are unjust for non-Jewish minorities. Adalah, a legal center for Arab rights in Israel, keeps a database of 50 laws which are directly or indirectly discriminatory towards non-Jewish citizens of Israel. I know that foreign Jews can receive automatic citizenship but no one else, including Palestinian descendants of refugees from 1948, can. Currently 35,000 Eritrean refugees asking for asylum find themselves homeless and unwelcome on the streets of South Tel Aviv or in holding camps in the Negev. I know of at least one riot where Jews destroyed African-owned shops and businesses in protest of a supposed increase in crime with the influx of African migrants. Yet despite these realities, Israeli society is no less segregated or unequal than any Western country outside of Scandinavia. It is miles ahead of its neighbors in the Middle East. Can Israel improve on integrating and assimilating its non-Jewish minorities, not to mention ensuring better treatment? Sure. But I can say definitively that the USA, France, and the UK are on equal footing or far worse when it comes to the treatment of minorities—not to mention the gap between rich and poor—and yet there are no worldwide calls for boycotts of these countries. While justice and sanctions must be meted out, I am uncomfortable with the fact that Israel is singled out so often on the international stage.

Injustice in the Occupied West Bank

While it was reassuring to see that Israel proper is not nearly as bad as I have heard it to be, my worst suspicions of the reality in the West Bank were confirmed. On my first weekend in Israel I went on a tour with an organization called Breaking the Silence. It was founded by a former IDF soldier who became disillusioned with the Occupation and the constant cycle of violence caused by it. My tour was lead by Shay Davidovitch, a former soldier who served in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank immediately after the end of the Second Intifada.

He took a bus full of mostly European tourists (and me) to Susiya, a small settlement constructed by the government in 1982 adjacent to a Palestinian village that had been there for over 100 years. The Palestinian village had 100 families living there originally. Now there are only 30 left. Shay described his tour of duty as a constant exercise in protecting the villagers from bullying, abuse, and outright violence inflicted upon them by extremist Jewish settlers living just up the hill from them. Of course, his mission was supposed to be about protecting the settlers from Palestinians, not the other way around. He described giving chase to an infiltrator which turned out to be a screaming five year old child, naked but for a pair of rainboots. He told us about how the government used the premise of an archaeological dig nearby to remove families from the village and send them to Yatta, the nearest large town 10 km or so away. The village used to rely on wells for their water; methodically, the government has gobbled up land containing these wells and given them to the settlers, or in some cases cold-heartedly filled in the wells or poisoned them. The people of Susiya are not terrorists, nor are they aliens from another planet. They are humble, simple human beings, just like you or me. They have herded sheep for generations on the terraced hillsides around them. You can see my photos of Susiya here.

It is true that in some cases, the Palestinians commit acts of terror, like when three Jewish boys were kidnapped and murdered last summer while hitch-hiking not very far from Susiya. Murder is unjustifiable, and is the basest act of all. And while I don’t support terrorism, I wonder what are Palestinians supposed to do? They’re caught in a purgatory where resistance—non-violent or otherwise—yields nothing but continued settlement expansion, and no resistance at all only prolongs the status quo. They have waited for decades to see the creation of a sovereign state on the land that their grandparents and their grandparents before them lived on.

The blame for the current quagmire is not Israel’s alone. While Israel has received more foreign aid (almost all from the USA) than just about any other country, it has invested intelligently in its best asset: its people. It’s not a coincidence that Israel is one of the world’s high-tech hubs. And while much of Israel’s military R&D has gone towards creating new weapons, it is also responsible for the creation of Iron Dome, the anti-missile defense system that saved hundreds if not thousands of civilian lives during last summer’s war in Gaza. I wonder if Israel’s most bitter critics would be appeased if Israeli civilians were killed at the same rate as Palestinians? Probably not.

In terms of foreign aid, Palestine has not been far behind, and yet much of it has been squandered or pocketed by its leaders. The few Palestinians I spoke to in Israel and Jordan (I stayed in Amman for a week) made it clear they despise their own leaders as much as Israel’s. While Jordan has extended full citizenship and rights to Palestinian refugees, the same cannot be said for Lebanon or Syria–where the Palestinians are caught in the horrific crossfire of the civil war. While Israel has brutally targeted unarmed civilians in its incursions in Gaza and the West Bank—here is an independent report of Israeli war crimes from last summer, reminiscent in some cases of Serbian atrocities committed in Bosnia and Kosovo in the ‘90s—there have been documented cases where Hamas or other resistance groups have cowardly placed themselves or their weapons in or near civilian buildings. And lastly, given that Palestinians or their allies have tried to wipe Israel off the map in 1948, 1967 (the cause of this war is debated) and 1973, not to mention two separate Intifadas where tens of thousands of Israelis were killed or horrifically maimed in terrorist attacks, I can’t blame the Israeli public, or its leadership, for feeling wary at best and antagonistic at worse of Palestinians and their quest for statehood.

While it takes two to tango and make peace, Israel controls the music. With control over all borders—but for the side of Gaza bordering Egypt—control over Palestinian government tax revenue, control over the power supply, control over who and what goes in and out of Palestine, and de facto security control over much of the West Bank, it is Israel that must make the first overtures towards peace, not Palestine.

There are so many brutal realities of the Occupation which Israel could stop today and would only make things better. The practice raids of people’s houses to arrest suspected terrorists—as well as numerous midnight incursions to search for weapons or suspects. The detention without trial or indictment of almost 500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. The bulldozing of homes to make way for settlements. The confiscation of wells in villages such as Susiya. The mean-spirited uprooting of olive trees. The “price-tag” acts of vandalism and destruction against Palestinian mosques, schools, and homes. The military check-points which make life difficult for those who still work in Israel. Of course, I am only referring here to the conditions in the West Bank; I did not get the chance to visit Gaza and I can’t imagine the misery people are enduring there (for an excellent report on post-war Gaza check out this article).

I have never met a Jew or Israeli who says they don’t want peace. The problem is that the Jews I know who are unequivocally supportive of the Israeli government’s policies have confused cause and effect. When Hamas launches rockets from Gaza, or a Palestinian stabs civilians on a bus in Tel Aviv they blame it on the hatred and loathing Palestinians have for Israel and Jews in general. And yet many Jews cannot connect the dots; they can’t fathom how decades of living under unjust conditions can very easily birth terrorism and hatred. No country or society can call itself democratic and egalitarian while it keeps an entire population under its heel, but Israel is doing just that—and at a tremendous cost for the young Israeli soldiers and innocent civilians who die as a consequence of the conditions which incubate terrorism. It is both immoral and also a terrible long-term strategy for ensuring domestic security.

If peace is to come to Israel, the Occupation has to end–it will be a massive step in the right direction. Palestinians have a right to live in peace on their land. If anything, Israel is acting in its own best interest by ending the occupation. A peaceful, stable Palestine is not only a safer neighbor to live next to, it is also a stronger trading partner. It is a terrible folly to assume that just because there have been wars and uprisings in the past the next generation of people growing up in this tiny parcel of land in the Middle East can’t find a way to coexist.

Can I be a Zionist and Pro-Palestinian?

In closing, I would like to address those who disagree with me, especially those who feel that my criticism of Israel somehow renders me a self-hating Jew or a traitor, or that I have taken for granted why Israel came to be given the historical context.

On my first day in Israel I had the epiphany—the “a-ha” moment—which probably every Jew visiting experiences. I went for a bike ride through the center of Tel Aviv. It was a Friday afternoon and people were relaxing in the sunshine, lounging on park benches, playing basketball, barbecuing together, running along the beach. I was struck by the contrast between these carefree, happy Jews enjoying an ordinary day and our ancestors whose screams reverberated in the concrete gas chambers of Auschwitz, the ones who fled into the snowy woods and swamps of Poland and Belarus and died of starvation and cold, the ones who were lined up in the ghettos and humiliated and shot by the Gestapo, the ones who hid for five years in attics or cellars and barely breathed for fear of being found, the ones who, when they most needed the world to stand up for them, were greeted with a mute, harrowing, deafening, horrific silence. I am glad Israel exists; we needed it in 1933 and we need it now—I am unapologetically a Zionist in this sense, and that will never change. But it was not the fault of the Palestinian people that our ancestors were slaughtered, and yet hundreds of thousands of them were displaced by us. So I am also for Palestine. The land may be small, but not small enough to be shared. I am for two sovereign states, for two sovereign peoples, and the courage to reach out with an open hand instead of a fist. History has a special place reserved for those who witness injustice and remain silent, and I will not be one of those people.

9 thoughts on “An American Jew’s Changing Perspective On Israel

    1. Thank you Nancy. Generally I don’t like to mix politics into my blog, but after sending this piece off to a few different publications it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to publish it in its entirety anywhere else.

  1. Really interesting post. In fact, I could relate to some of your experiences – only I came from the other direction. I was born and raised in the US, but my family on my father’s side is Palestinian, originally from Galilee near the Lebanese border. In 1948 they were displaced and crossed that border, and my father’s first memories were of growing up in a refugee camp in Baalbek.

    It was strange for me growing up as an American with a story about Israel and Palestine that seemed to be the opposite of the story most of my friends had heard. Throughout high school and college, as I became more politically aware, I started getting into long (and totally useless and pointless) debates with other students about borders and occupation. I could never condone the killing of civilians on any side, but I couldn’t understand why so many people seemed not to mind very much when Gaza or Lebanon got bombed. I went to Lebanon a few times to visit family in Sidon and Beirut and heard a lot of stories about my family’s origins and about the wars in the region.

    Since then, though, I’ve tried to understand other perspectives. Even though it’s hard for me, because I’ve never been there, I’ve tried to put myself in the place of someone living in Ashkelon during one of the Hamas-Israel wars, right in the path of missiles, in the place of someone who lost friends or family in a bombing in Tel Aviv, and I think I understand the perspective of at least some Israelis. I don’t know whether this conflict will ever be solved – probably not in our lifetimes – but I hope some kind of just peace can be made.

    1. Wow. If you grew up as the child of a Palestinian refugee then the narrative you heard was surely the complete opposite of what I was told. It is, of course, immensely complex, and unrealistic to assume that either Israelis or Palestinians would simply leave. Thanks to Iron Dome the war last summer was relatively quiet for most of the Israelis I met in Tel Aviv (they have almost a minute and a half to find a shelter, an eternity) but my older relatives remember what the Second Intifada was like. Sadly, their exposure to terror has made them less likely to empathize with the numerous civilians in Gaza and the West Bank who have also been terrorized by settlers or the IDF. That’s the problem with this violence, and that’s why the sooner it stops the sooner the next generation of people can come to power without a memory of war or terror and be able to acknowledge the humanity of those on the other side of the fence. Even if it sounds like peace will not come in our lifetimes, you sound like someone worth reaching out to though 🙂 I’ll send you an email; maybe one day our paths will meet.

      1. Definitely. My email is posted on the about page of my blog if you’d like to contact me, but I’ll post it here too:

        I have the feeling I won’t be doing much traveling for the next several years because of my studies and work. Reading blogs like this helps me “travel in my mind”, if that makes any sense, so I appreciate this kind of writing. And it’s always good to hear from people with different perspectives. Thanks!

      2. I’ll send you an email, so hopefully one day if our paths cross we can meet. And I totally understand what you mean by traveling in your mind. It’s what I did before I started traveling myself–and I understand that for some people, it might be impossible or not even so desirable to do what I do. If it’s any comfort, I have met plenty of people who have traveled to many places yet come off as total assholes, yet I know people who have barely been away from home and yet have a much more global, worldly mindset.

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