Israel/Palestine: What I Saw


I grew up in a pro-Israel household in Brooklyn. My father’s father escaped the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in Russia by jumping in the river and swimming away from the violence. In 1910, when he was 21 and about to be drafted into the Tsar’s army, he fled to the United States.

My mother was born in Poland and endured the famine after World War I and the pogrom of 1919. The family left Poland in 1921, when Mom was seven. Those relatives who stayed behind were murdered in the Holocaust. Much later, when I was a child, Mom told me about Polish boys coming out of church and throwing stones at her and yelling “Christ-killer!” To me she expressed dismay about the Jewish boys in Poland who studied Torah and didn’t know how to fight, to protect her. The trauma never left her. Even in her late 40s, when she had to walk by St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and saw a group of boys in their parochial school uniforms, she hurried past as though they too might stone her.

We worried when Israel was attacked by neighboring countries, and rejoiced at its victories. My parents were proud of Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. We didn’t know any Arabs, either Muslim or Christian, and couldn’t distinguish between one nation and another. Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Kuwaiti—they were all alike, all part of one amorphous mass.

Once a cousin expressed what we’d tacitly accepted. “Why can’t the Arabs let us have that one little piece of land? They have twenty different countries they can go to.” I didn’t waste words arguing with her, though by then I’d begun to have doubts. I understood the Zionist agenda, and I believe it remains the same now as it was then: seize the land for Jews, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. It’s not all that different from the 19th-century American doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the associated policy of “Indian removal.”

In 1982 I began a master’s degree program in teaching English as a second language at San Francisco State University. In addition to taking classes, I had to do supervised teaching. My students came from almost everywhere, including, as I remember, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and they had a different point of view. “We didn’t kill all those Jews,” a young man said bitterly. “Germany did. Why are they coming to take our land? Why doesn’t Germany give them a piece of good land along the Rhine instead?” I couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe in Germany. But he had a point, and I didn’t have a good answer for him.

One day, while I was preparing a lesson plan, my master teacher approached me. Steve and I were, as far as we knew, the two gay people on the faculty, and we’d become friends. Out of the blue he asked, “Do you think Israel has the right to exist?”

It felt like a gut punch, as if he’d asked me if I had the right to exist. But he was my boss, so I replied calmly, “Why wouldn’t it have that right?”

“Well, because it’s a settler state.”

“So is this country.”

“But we’ve been here for 200 years.”


“So if Israel manages to hang on for 200 years,” I asked him, “it will have earned the right to exist?”

Steve walked away without responding. He and his partner owned a home in the Berkeley hills, and I’m sure he wasn’t making plans to return the land to the Native Americans.

What I Saw There

In 1984 I went to Israel for the first time, to visit my ex-lover Ruth and the three kids I’d helped her raise and to do research for my trilogy of novels set in the ancient Middle East. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs were unfailingly kind and hospitable to this foreigner—reserving their hostility for each other.

Ruth lived in Haifa and drove me to a few sites in the northern part of the country, including Hazor and Elijah’s cave, which I describe in the trilogy. One day she drove us to the Sea of Galilee, where she pointed out the Golan Heights. “The Syrians used to roll their tanks up to the edge of that cliff and lob shells at our villages down below. That’s why we had to annex that territory.” That seemed to make sense at the time.

One afternoon I took her seven-year-old daughter for a walk. Anat told me something she’d just learned in school. “Islam is a fake religion,” she announced. She didn’t say what they were teaching her about Christianity, and I didn’t want to ask.

For the most part, however, I traveled alone, on public transportation or on foot. Soldiers also rode the buses. If one was in an aisle seat, I’d have to step carefully to avoid tripping over the Uzi that he’d set on the floor next to him, butt down, barrel in the air. It gave me the willies.

I stayed with a Jewish couple in Tel Aviv. They were middle-class professionals and considered themselves liberal. They felt bad for the Palestinians in the occupied territories whose homes were being confiscated for the benefit of Jewish settlers. But, the man told me, his smile tinged with guilt, he was looking forward to acquiring some of that cheap land.

In Jerusalem, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. One image is permanently burned into my soul: a photo of a Nazi woman, seated, with a satisfied half smile. Lying at her feet is a starving Jewish man, nothing but bones and staring eyes, clearly on the verge of death.

When I left the museum I understood why those soldiers carried submachine guns. I wanted one too, to protect my people from any attackers anywhere in the world.

I had to see the Dome of the Rock, with the Al-Aqsa Mosque one of the holiest sites in Islam, built on the ruins of the original Jewish Temple. On the way in, I passed an Orthodox Jewish man who reproached me, saying that it would be a sin for me to visit the place. I ignored him but I didn’t get in that day anyway—the Muslim religious police who searched my bag for bombs found my marijuana instead. “Go away,” he said. “Come back tomorrow or any other day, but not with that.” He obviously had no interest in turning me or anyone over to the Israel police, for which I was grateful. I did return the following day. The Dome was and is the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

While walking around Jerusalem I passed a storefront. Displayed in the window was an artist’s rendering of the original Jewish Temple, complete with priests offering animal sacrifices. Curious, I entered and had a chat with the woman behind the counter. Her organization planned to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build another Temple on the site. “But this is the third holiest site in Islam,” I protested. “There are a billion Muslims in the world, and they’ll all feel obliged to make war—”

“Our God will defeat them,” she replied, with a distant, fanatic serenity.

From Jerusalem I traveled southward toward Elat. Along the side of the road I encountered two Palestinian laborers eating lunch, which they offered to share with me. It would have been very rude to refuse their hospitality, so I squatted down with them. They tore off chunks of pita bread and we dipped together into the stew pot. “We can’t have a decent life here,” one of them said. “The Jews do what they want with us.”

A couple of days later I had traveler’s diarrhea and went to a doctor, explaining that it might have come from the shared meal. He gave me medical advice—and also expressed loathing for Arabs. I’m sure many Palestinians, among themselves, express a reciprocal hatred. They never did so to my face.

Back in Haifa I joined an Israeli lesbian group for a picnic on the beach. “Aren’t you happy to be here in Israel, just among Jews?” they asked.

I pointed to a Palestinian man pedaling his bicycle along the sand, selling ice cream out of little freezer compartments mounted over the back wheel. “What about him?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” one of them mumbled. But he obviously didn’t count.

I shrugged. “Anyway, where’s everybody else?” I was thinking of all the different ethnic groups who were my neighbors in Oakland. These Israeli women didn’t know what I was talking about.

On the last day Ruth drove me to the airport. We were going through security when I saw an Israeli soldier searching the luggage of a Palestinian couple. He had what I assume was a metal detector, with a long rod. He’d picked up the woman’s underpants and was slowly running the rod through them, right in front of everybody, smiling nastily, as if to say I can fuck you and you can’t do anything about it. The Palestinians looked totally humiliated.

That image is also burned into my soul.

To be continued…

4 Responses to Israel/Palestine: What I Saw

  1. Esther Newton June 2, 2021 at 9:35 am #

    This is so complicated for anyone, like you and to a somewhat lesser degree me, who grew up in a Holocaust aware home. You do a great job of teasing out the process by which someone like myself who started out a Zionist, with the idea that Jews need a safe homeland (my parents thought the Arabs kept the refugees purposely in camps to make Israel look bad and thought they could go to Jordan and settle there). LIttle by little I have become disgusted by the right wing government’s racist policies. I think it’s too late for the two state solution, there has to be one democratic state. No idea how or if the Israelis and Palestinians can get there.

  2. Mary McCarthy June 2, 2021 at 9:59 pm #

    Excellent…bet you get some outrage about this.

  3. Martha Shelley June 2, 2021 at 10:09 pm #

    Mary, I haven’t shared this with certain friends or relatives who would be outraged. No point. They will still believe what they’ve always believed.

  4. Richard Koob June 3, 2021 at 5:33 pm #

    Thanks Martha for providing personally experienced light and night to shadowy issues.

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