Until now I’ve avoided writing about modern-day Israel. Everyone I know—friends, relatives, political comrades, associates at work—has passionate convictions about that contested strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean. Some are right-wing Zionists, some left-wing. Some are pro-Palestinian. Although I was raised to think of Israel as belonging to me by right of birth, as my refuge against the eternal scourge of anti-Semitism, I’ve never lived there. Never voted, paid taxes, or served in the military there. What gives me the right to pontificate to those who do live there? Moreover, taking sides on any of Israel’s many issues has felt like wading into a swamp full of alligators. One or another critter who disagrees, passionately, is liable to bite my leg off.
Today, however, with Israel seemingly about to fall apart, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts and personal experiences.
“Do you think Israel has the right to exist?”
The question seemed to drop from the sunny blue sky. I looked up and saw Stephen Thewlis standing over me. I’d been sitting on the steps of the Humanities Building at San Francisco State University, grading papers. In 1983 I was a student teacher of ESL, and Stephen was my master teacher. He was a nice guy, and gay like me, but his question hit me in the gut, as if he were questioning my right to exist. I was a child of refugees, and many of my family had perished in the Holocaust.
“Why shouldn’t it have the right to exist?” I managed to reply calmly. After all, Stephen was my boss.
“Well, because it’s a settler state.”
“So is this country.”
“But we’ve been here over 200 years.”
“Then if Israel manages to survive for 200 years, will it have earned the right to exist?”
Stephen walked away. He and his partner owned a nice house in the Berkeley hills, and I doubt that he was in a hurry to return that bit of real estate to the Native Americans.
* * *
As a new teacher, I didn’t use the homogenized, bland lectures that the administration provided but wrote my own, on such topics as racism in America, or the benefits that various cultures had contributed to the world. It was a lot of extra work, but I think it provided an opening for students to engage emotionally, present their own ideas, and challenge me, instead of just memorizing vocabulary.
A number of my students were from Arab countries. With the exception of a young Saudi woman who attended with her husband, they were male. Sometimes they would approach me after class to talk about conditions at home, or with questions about American culture. On a couple of occasions they invited me to casual get-togethers during which—knowing I was Jewish—they expressed their opinions about Israel.
“It’s the 51st state,” one declared, “only it tells the other fifty what to do.”
“Why did the Jews take our land?” another asked. “We didn’t hurt them, the Germans did. Germany should give them a nice piece of land along the Rhine.”
I listened but didn’t debate them—the first boy because I didn’t have enough knowledge of foreign policy to counter him with facts, and the second because my gut feeling at the time was that as a Jew, I could never feel safe in Germany, a feeling that had been inculcated since childhood.
My mother was proud of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader, so unlike the timid yeshiva students who could not protect her back in Poland when gentile boys threw stones at her, calling her “Christ-killer.” Most of my family were and are ardent Zionists. When I had a discussion with one cousin about racism, she told me that she was politically liberal “except when it comes to Israel.” In other words, it was okay to take land from Palestinians. “The Arabs have all those other countries to go to—why can’t they just let us have that one?”
I grew up hearing the songs from Exodus. “This land is mine / God gave this land to me.” If I’d given the matter any thought, it would have seemed absurd that God had reserved any particular land for anyone. (Though as the movie poster shows, God’s gifts apparently must be secured with guns.) But during those early years I was never exposed to any contrary opinions.
To be continued…