The morning after the tragic and devastating explosion in Beirut, a friend posted on Facebook an interview with Moshe Feiglin, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, once affiliated with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party. He said the explosion was a gift from God. He hoped that Israel had a hand in it and contended that “we” (Jews? Israelis?) were allowed to rejoice because it was Beirut, not Tel Aviv.
Now, it’s the case that every society has its crazies whose views are on the fringe and are an embarrassment to most of respectable society. It’s also true, as defenders of views like Feiglin’s are always quick to respond, that there are Palestinians and other Arabs who are wishing the same and worse on Israel. Nonetheless, Feiglin’s words fill me with shame because they represent a trend in Israel that has become more and more pronounced over the years.
I was nine years old when the State of Israel was founded. I have memories of standing on a street corner shaking a collection box, exhorting passersby to contribute to the Jewish National Fund, an organization that purchased and maintained land in Israel for the purpose of nation building. From the age of five or six I had accompanied my father to synagogue where we recited prayers about the return of our people to Zion. At the end of the Passover seder we sang “Next year in Jerusalem”! My teenage years outside of school centered on the Jewish youth group at my synagogue where we sang and danced to Israeli songs and dreamed about living the pioneering life on a kibbutz. After my freshman year of college, the youth group sent me to Israel for a year of work and study to prepare me to become a youth group leader. I fell in love with the country and the language. I connected with a large branch of my family that had come to pre-state Palestine just before the start of WWII. My maternal grandparents are buried in Haifa.
I returned to the US fully intending to “make Aliyah” (to emigrate, literally to go up) to Israel once I finished my education. To that end, I continued my study of Hebrew, Jewish history, the Bible and Hebrew literature. This was unlike my college courses which were preparing me for a profession. My Jewish studies were “learning for its own sake.” Although I never made Aliyah, a story for another blog post, Israel continued to be a centerpiece in my Jewish identity, as it was for many American Jews. The high point came with the 1967 War, in which Israel prevailed against the armies of the surrounding Arab countries, a source of great pride to Jews around the world.
With that victory came the expansion of Israeli territory beyond the cramped borders of the original UN mandate to include East Jerusalem, the Sinai desert, the West Bank and Gaza. The story of these last 53 years has been well-covered in the press. There was a worm in the apple of that ’67 victory. With the growth of the settlements in the newly occupied territories, Israel became an occupying power with all the corrosive effects that accompanied this new role. The occupied Palestinians became, first, a lesser sub-species, granting the occupiers permission to treat them in harsh and inhuman ways. Perhaps even worse, with the building of the wall that separated the occupied territories from the original state, the Palestinians have become invisible to many Israeli Jews.
This invisibility brings us full circle. These past two weeks the Jewish media has featured reactions to a conversation between the comedian/actor Seth Rogen and interviewer/comedian Marc Maron in which they expressed anger about the lies at the center of their Jewish education about Israel. They complained that the heroic mythology of the Jewish founders gave the impression that they had arrived in an empty land, simply awaiting their arrival to set about making the desert bloom. Rogen also made some intemperate remarks about Israel’s existence that he has since walked back, but the point is that they were expressing a disillusionment that has only grown as the generations flip by.
For me, it’s a combination of sadness and disappointment. I know a lot more than that 18-year-old who boarded a ship for a two-week journey from New York to the port of Haifa. I know about the people who were forced out of their homes in 1948 in the false belief that they would be able to return shortly and the others who were more forcibly removed. Those people and their descendants still sit in refugee camps scattered around neighboring Arab countries. Despite what amounts to the original sin baked into its creation there was still hope that with our own history of oppression we would find a way not to become oppressors ourselves.
But the occupation and the proliferation of settlements have had a corrosive effect on the soul of the country, so that the remarks of Mr. Feiglin are not as far outside the boundaries of acceptability as they once were. The actions of the government toward Palestinians on the West Bank, Bedouins in the Negev and African refugees in Tel-Aviv become less and less defensible, and the contention that Israel is an apartheid country become more difficult to counter.
Still it’s family. Do you simply cut ties with the crazy uncle who rants about Trump being the greatest president in our history or do you keep him under the tent while working to counter the damage he causes? For me and my wife that has meant working with and supporting The New Israel Fund, a group that aids groups committed to bolstering civil society in Israel by fighting for justice on issues like the rights of Palestinians, Ethiopian Jews, battered women, LGBTQ citizens, African immigrants and many other righteous fronts.
NIF is swimming against the tide and the Netanyahu government has even tried to ban it. Yet it is a small source of hope, as are the thousands of people in the streets protesting against the corruption and the racist policies of its government. I tried at the outset to enumerate the ways in which Israel has been one of the pillars of my Judaism from early on. That pillar is under heavy assault and there are days when I feel like Samson standing in the temple as it falls around his shorn head.
PS. This note is mainly for the benefit of my non-Jewish readers. You need to understand that any American Jew who dares to speak publicly about Israel is knowingly walking into a mine field. There is no more polarizing issue among Jews for whom Israel is an issue of interest or concern. Depending on where you land on the spectrum of positions you are likely to be called a self-hating Jew, a right-wing fascist and many epithets in between. My own place on that spectrum is complicated and evolving. Despite my full-throated opposition to the policies of the current government and its leadership, my views don’t match those of my most radical friends who question Israel’s right to exist and who support the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), but every step further to the right by the government makes my position increasingly less tenable. I will confess that I’m hanging on by my fingernails.