Israel, One Year Later

As many of you know, I spent the summer of 2016 living in Tel Aviv, Israel, through Taglit Birthright Excel. This March, I wrote a piece called “Lydda” that reflected on my experience in Israel and my support of the country, and, in my boredom before school starts in September, I decided to adapt it to share with a broader audience.

“I don’t know.”

You always expect the most religious people you meet — the ones who go to Church every Sunday and sometimes more often and know the passages of the Bible better than the backs of their hands, or who stand at the Kotel on Shabbat in a black suit with a jacket that goes down to their knees and a minx fur hat shaped like an oversized, fluffy hockey puck — to be the most certain in their religious conviction. But Menachem isn’t. Menachem, who observes Shabbat, studied for three years in a Yeshiva, wears a kippah, and has curly, black peyote that dangle down to his chin, is unsure. Unsure if there’s a God, unsure what to do about the Palestinians, unsure whether the regulations of Jewish orthodoxy are meaningful or merely shibboleth. But he abides by them.

“So why do you do all this, if you don’t know?” I ask back between bites of kugel.

“Because it’s how I was raised — this tradition is the only thing I know.”

I, too, am unsure about God and unsure about the Palestinians, and I, too, only know one Jewish tradition, though the one I was raised in is hardly the same religion as Menachem’s. My favorite meal is a bacon cheeseburger. I don’t observe Shabbat. My formal Jewish education consisted of three months of Hebrew school in third grade before quitting — my Israeli grandmother accompanied me one day and told me I was “wasting my time” — followed by a six-month crash course in the Torah before my Bar Mitzvah, which happened at the Harvard faculty club with a rent-a-Torah and rent-a-Rabbi. I don’t wear a kippah except for the high holidays, and the thought of having peyote makes me shudder.

“Don’t read too much into the emotion. He really was the happiest man I’ve ever known– he just used the diary to motivate himself,” my Mom explained as she handed me an electric blue, spiral-bound translation of my Grandfather’s diaries from their original French.

But when I finally open the diary a week later, slouched in a chair alone in the windowless, concrete-floored, and sterile basement of the Bing Wing of Green Library, my eyes start to water. And Bernard Ehrenreich begins:

From my earliest infancy onward, I have not had much happiness. I have always lived in misery since our arrival in Belgium, and in Germany, life was not very joyful for me either. Family scenes have always remained in my memory and have caused me grief, have made me feel alone.

My throat and stomach tighten as in the first stages of an allergic reaction, but I continue.

I saw my mother for the last time on September 13, 1942. On September 24th, 1942, she disappeared, and since then, I remained all alone in the world… Ill, tired, exhausted, she was not afraid to work because it was for me; she wanted me to grow, and to be healthy.
She placed me in [a hostel in] Wezembeck, and I was told that she was so happy that she cried for joy. She then felt no more fear of the Germans, they could take her, her son was saved.

I try to heed my mother’s words, but I can’t. My heart aches for my great-grandmother, Rosa Ehrenreich, and the sacrifices she made for her son, my grandfather; for Bernard Ehrenreich and his loneliness; for the entire branch of my family tree that was exterminated in the crematoria of Nazi Germany.

Bernard moved from hostel to hostel in Belgium, alone in the world as a ten-year-old. Ten, when I was a fifth grader learning what fractions were by day at a cushy private elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and binge-playing Pokemon Emerald version on my GameBoy Advance by night. Eventually, a woman named Madame Tacquet took Bernard and a few other Jewish boys into hiding at a Catholic boys’ school in Jamoigne in the Belgian countryside. There, he began his formal education while posing as a Catholic; subsisted on a quantity of potatoes that left everyone else gaunt and him rotund due to his metabolism, earning him the nickname Jim le boulée (“Jim the Meatball”); and wept on September 29th, 1944 — Liberation Day. Told that he was not allowed to continue his studies at the school because he was Jewish, Bernard wandered. First to Brussels, then to Marseilles, then finally to Jaffa, in Israel, on the Cairo in 1946.

I encountered significant numbers of non-Jews in exactly three places while I was in Israel: first, in Jaffa, a port on the south side of Tel Aviv, one of the few truly mixed neighborhoods in the country; second, in a village on the Lebanese border; and, third, in the Old City of Jerusalem. In Jaffa, I scooped bowls of hummus at sunset while hearing the muezzin — the Muslim call to prayer — blast “Allllllaaaahu Akbar… Allllllaaaahu Akbar,” in an abrasive yet fuzzy voice over the semi-broken, twenty-year-old megaphones scattered throughout the neighborhood; in Jaffa, I walked home, stuffed and nearly narcoleptic after too many helpings of that hummus, past Muslim families breaking the Ramadan fast at picnic tables overlooking the water. On the Lebanese border, Mohammed expressed his gratitude to the Jewish state for providing him with opportunity — in Lebanon, he could not have had a stable income from working as a teacher, and, in Lebanon, his daughter would not be attending medical school.

In Jerusalem, Muslim men in thawbs with kufis atop their heads passed by Orthodox Jews in their black suits with skullcaps or black hats, always leering at each other with narrowed, skeptical eyes but never acknowledging the other’s presence or confronting them. Every time two men passed like this, my stomach would tense as I half-expected the next intifada to begin before my eyes and half-wondered how these men in all their garb hadn’t yet fainted in the hundred-degree-plus heat of Jerusalem in late July. Of course, nothing of significance ever happened between these pairs of men, and the only agitation I witnessed inside the walls involved two Jewish men in a shouting match because one had knocked off the other’s kippah.

That I never entered the West Bank beyond taking a shortcut from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea is my biggest regret from that summer in Israel, for intertwined with the Israeli story is the Palestinian one. Israeli victory in the 1948 War of Independence and the subsequent exile of many Palestinians to the West Bank and Jordan is Al-Nakba, the catastrophe. The territories of Judea and Samaria are the West Bank, and the Israeli “settlements” there — which, for the record, are not trailer parks or tent cities posted up in the desert but towns and cities of thousands — are the seizure of land that has belonged to the Palestinian people for generations and still does today. The bombings of Hamas outposts and bulldozing of terrorists’ homes are not security measures but the unjust destruction of schools and the homes of friends, brothers, and uncles.

My heart lies with the Jewish state — for Bernard, for Rosa, and for all of my ancestors and descendants, I hope that the Israeli and Zionist narrative is the right one, that the Jewish people will have a home in Israel in perpetuity. I want to support it, whatever it means to “support” a country or ideology. But I cannot ignore or belie the Palestinian narrative and refuse to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian, Jewish-Muslim, and moderate-orthodox dialectics ingrained in the history of the region. And sometimes I wonder if these two desires are compatible.

I brought three items home with me from Israel– a hand-knit kippah with navy blue and white concentric circles on top; an oil-on-canvas painting of Jews praying at the Western Wall at sunset; and a mezuzah, a small metal box containing a prayer that Jews affix in their doorways to comply with the commandment to inscribe the Shema “on the doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6 : 9). I rarely wear kippahs, didn’t know what the Western Wall was until fifteen minutes before I visited it, and am almost certain I’d never seen a mezuzah on a door in America, ever. And I have never referenced a Biblical or Torah passage in writing or speaking until this essay.

But when I came back to school last September, I hung the painting of the Western Wall above my bed and put the mezuzah on my door frame. I try to kiss two fingers and place them on the shiny gold alloy most times I walk through, even though I don’t know if “Adonai is our God, Adonai is one,” and have never prayed in my life beyond mumbling Hebrew because I had to at a service. I also donned a kippah and went to temple for the first time in years — the Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur. There, I was met not with the incomprehensible Hebrew mumblings of old men that I grew to expect after a dozen trips to temple, but with a stirring musical tribute — in English ­– by Rabbi Serena. One poem by Dana Shusterman in particular stands out. It ends:

My grandfather was a farmer.
Before he died
he planted a lifetime of seeds.
Diligently he planted honesty and
Inadvertently he planted gentleness and
Bounty enough to nourish me
all the seasons of my life
far into the planting season of my child.

While I was waiting in the JFK airport after landing from Israel, I wrote my first and only blog post besides this one. I conclude, “While I am concerned for Israel’s future­, concerned that, if it isn’t careful, Israel could lose everything, I also believe that Israel can and will overcome those problems and remain a prosperous, democratic nation that I can be proud of far into the future.”

The questions I posed last August are the right ones: will the government continue to support and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank? How can Israeli society integrate its Haredi and Arab minorities? And finally, can Israel maintain its simultaneous Jewish and democratic character; can it remain or become a Jewish state that is not only for its Jews but for everyone who lives there, a place where a Jewish majority can peacefully coexist alongside Christian, Muslim, Bedouin, and Druid minorities? But today, I am far less certain in that conviction than I was a year ago, far less certain that, despite its warts, Israel can remain a prosperous, democratic nation far into the future.

When I came home, I said that I “fell in love with” Israel, that I was proud to call it home, if only for two months. Israel is indeed physically beautiful, from the pristine Yarkon River and the surrounding parks that I lived across from, to the mountains of Ein Gedi above the Dead Sea, to the Roman Ruins in Caesaria. The economy is hi-tech, innovative, and forward-thinking. The people are brilliant, resilient. They have chutzpah, and massive dogs for a big city. Tel Aviv has amazing shawarma, hummus, and shakshuka; Tel Aviv is fun. “It’s like Miami Beach, but smaller and in the Middle East,” I tell my friends. But now that I’m home, I’m starting to question whether I fell in love with the country or with the life I led while I was there, where I was sheltered from violence, lived in a liberal, fairly wealthy part of Tel Aviv, and was not in the IDF like my second cousin who is but seven days solder than I am.

On a lacrosse bus ride this past winter, I watched The Law in These Parts, which detailed the legal rights stripped of Palestinians in the West Bank by martial law — for example, that the Israeli government can and does detain Palestinians without trial for up to six months, or that their cases are argued in Hebrew, a language they usually don’t speak, using questionable interrogation techniques, before a single military judge — and how the Israeli Supreme Court has contorted international law to preserve the legal status of the settlements. As I read the news, I see a government increasingly supportive of settlements which, after much searching, I can find no moral justification for; in February, the Israeli Knesset passed the Regularization Law, which retroactivity “legalized” settlements built on Palestinian private property.

I watch these documentaries and read the New York Times in disbelief because I want to support Israel at a visceral, emotional level, for my story is inextricably intertwined with the Zionist one. I owe my very existence to the Jewish state’s acceptance of my penniless grandfather. His sweat helped forge the Israeli nation — he fought in the Battle of Negba in 1948, a crucial moment in nascent Israel’s war against its Arab neighbors — and my great-grandmother was in the seventh-generation of her family to be born in Jerusalem’s Old City.

I want to reject Ari Shavit’s account of working as a prison guard in Gaza during one of the intifadas. Fuck Hamas, they deserved it, I say to myself. But more evidence — a lecture slide containing a list the rights of Israeli citizens next to the corresponding, and lesser, rights of West Bank Palestinians, a conversation with my Jewish professor, the hardening rhetoric of the Israeli government — and my stomach sinks. I’m increasingly unsure not just that Israel will be prosperous and democratic; I’m unsure whether I can continue to be proud of Israel into the future. Whether I can reconcile the life I loved, the people I loved, and the culture I loved with the missteps and brutality of the Israeli government. Can I continue to support Israel without compromising the liberal, democratic, and, most importantly, Jewish values I was raised with? Is it possible that supporting the Jewish state is antithetical to Jewish values?

In My Promised Land, Ari Shavit describes the forceful expulsion of Arabs from parts of Israel by the IDF in the 1948 war with a particular focus on one Arab village, Lydda: “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland,” he writes. Shavit argues that this dark side of Zionism presents the moral Jew with a painful binary. We can either “reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” The question is spot on. The answer, I don’t know.