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My Return to Israel

An Exciting, Exhausting, Energizing, Depressing
& Overwhelmingly Intense Trip

Dennis Fox

April 28, 2005

Published in Our Town Brookline (June 2005)

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I sat in Kibbutz Hatzerim's dining room across from Ruthie Elad. We were talking about her late husband, Gidon, who in 1964 had introduced me to a blend of Jewish identity, socialist community, and social justice. The irresistible combination of Gidon's intellectual humanism and Ruthie's warm nature and hot tea changed my life.

The January lunch came during my first visit to Israel since abandoning plans to live there in 1973. This time I had come for a month, but catching up with old friends was just one goal. Beyond nostalgia, I sought to explore the story so often left out of mainstream American discourse, certainly American Jewish discourse: Israel's impact on Palestinian lives.

The groundwork for my shift from confident teenage Zionist to conflicted aging non-Zionist was laid at the beginning. I told Ruthie I remembered Gidon criticizing Israel's morally unacceptable and politically short-sighted institutionalization of Jewish dominance. Before occupation, before intifada, before Israeli policy became right-wing property, this Zionist kibbutznik already abhorred Israel's dismissal of its Arab citizens' humanity.

Gidon sought to replace Hatikva, Israel's national anthem expressing Jewish yearning for Zion, with a song its Arab citizens could also embrace. He wanted Israeli schools to teach every Jewish child Arabic, so that Israel could identify with the Middle East linguistically and culturally. He rejected calls for Greater Israel, expulsion of Palestinians, and permanent occupation as dangerous violations of social justice and Jewish values.

I told Ruthie, "I thought that was Zionism." She nodded. "So did he."

Roots in Zionism

Before their kibbutz movement sent Ruthie and Gidon to New York to work with Young Judaea, the youth organization I had stumbled into, I had resisted Zionist arguments. Eventually though, I became a believer. I learned Hebrew, rallied for Soviet Jewry, and performed with an Israeli folk dance group. After high school, I went on Young Judaea's Year Course in Israel, where I experienced not just Jerusalem class work and kibbutz life, but the Six Day War's tension and release. I returned to the States knowing I would go back to live. Five years later I did so, with a group of former Judaeans I had helped organize that planned to start a new kibbutz.

Throughout those years I retained Gidon's skepticism. The frank assumption of Jewish superiority and Arab expendability in some Zionist strains appalled me. At Brooklyn College, I studied Arabic, preparing to see the other side. I helped my kibbutz group reject pressure to move into Occupied Territory, and unsuccessfully proposed that we accept Arab members. Even after leaving Israel when my group splintered (the majority created Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat, the rest mostly returned to the States), I held on to the notion that Israel could reconcile Jewish statehood with democratic equality.

Challenging the Status Quo

I first criticized Israel in print in 1982, when Ariel Sharon's army let Lebanese Christian Falangists massacre Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and then dropped the painful subject once again. But over the past few years I've been drawn back. Decades late, I'm finally trying to follow the advice that I routinely give my students: challenge basic assumptions.

Accepting that challenge led me back to Israel to re-visit my past, explore the present, and accumulate impressions to mull over in the future. I could go for only a month, but after three decades that month was crucial to let me move on.

For more than two weeks I traveled by bus, train, taxi, and car, ate in restaurants and people's homes, went to laundromats and bookstores, a camera store, a shopping mall. I hiked, took photos, relaxed on park benches. I visited friends, relatives, and new academic contacts - half a dozen in Jerusalem, others in the Negev's Midreshet Ben Gurion, in the religious town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and on four kibbutzim, including Ketura, where only four Young Judaean founders remain. Talk invariably turned to what everyone calls "The Situation".

Seeing the Palestinian Side

To see "The Situation" from the Palestinian side, I needed help. My Brooklyn College Arabic had long faded away, and an adult-education course last fall was too limited to restore it. I knew West Bank travel would be confusing, and I didn't relish calling strangers to invite myself over to chat. So I joined a two-week tour organized by Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP), an anti-occupation group run mostly by Israeli and American Jewish professors. That FFIPP would present just one side didn't concern me. I wanted to see the effects of Israeli policy. I already knew Israel's rationale.

The tour delivered as promised. At universities in Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus, we met with students and faculty struggling to carry on despite the occupation's disruptions. Outside the universities, we met Palestinians in many settings, including a research center analyzing refugee data, a mental health center treating Palestinians tortured in Israeli jails, and a demographic agency documenting Jewish settlement expansion. We waited at crowded checkpoints and drove many miles to avoid them, gazed up at both sides of the Separation Wall, visited refugee camps, outdoor markets, and small villages.

FFIPP also introduced us to Israelis. In Tel Aviv we met combat reservists in Courage to Refuse who refuse to serve in Occupied Territory. Others from Breaking the Silence showed us photos and testimonials recounting their routine abuse of Palestinian civilians in Hebron. In Jerusalem, organizers of The Campus Is Not Silent described their work at Hebrew University.

By coincidence, our tour coincided with the final two weeks of the Palestinian presidential campaign. With campaign posters the omnipresent backdrop, we heard Palestinian hopes for post-election improvement after four years of violence and 37 of occupation. Everything we saw and heard pointed to a longing for normality - getting to school or work or a doctor's visit without checkpoint delays; harvesting olives now growing on the wrong side of the Separation Wall; walking to the corner store without harassment by Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers. The knowledge that Israel and the United States favored Mahmoud Abbas, the expected President, encouraged hope that his election would loosen harsh restrictions, end collective punishments, and restore the Palestinian economy.

The yearning for normality was accompanied by one for justice. Many worried that if Israel refuses to go further than in past negotiations, Abbas will agree to an unacceptably truncated Palestinian state. Without borders on the pre-occupation "Green Line" and contiguous territory allowing easy travel and commerce, any peace agreement would offer little more than a national flag. An agreement that fails to establish Palestine's capital in East Jerusalem and resolve the Palestinian refugee problem will lead not to normality and peace, but to permanent resentment. Palestinians are willing to live alongside a Jewish State (many told us so, and polls confirm it), but only as equals whose grievances are dealt with fairly. s

One Palestinian academic told us Abbas has two years at most to bring results before people lose patience and turn back to Hamas and other hard-line groups. Another worried that Palestinians were overoptimistic, expecting to drive soon to shop in Jerusalem. If Israel prevents that, disillusionment could turn into rage.

Hopes for Resolution

Inside Israel I also discovered optimism. Some think Abbas will succeed where Yasser Arafat failed, achieving enough of a Palestinian state to quiet things down. Others think security requires nothing more than clamping down on terrorists or finishing the Separation Wall. I didn't hang out with Israelis who want to expel more Palestinians, establish Greater Israel all the way to the Jordan River and beyond, and demolish Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock to make way for the Third Temple. My friends and other contacts had more ordinary desires. They want to stop worrying when their children get on a bus, and to go to work or a movie without a security guard going through their bags. Even anti-occupation leftists who think Israel has done alestinians wrong don't relish incoming rockets and suicide bombings.

The pre-election optimism, reinforced by post-election efforts to avoid high-publicity escalation, at least clarifies that there are both Israelis and Palestinians who can envision resolution. I wish I could share that optimism, but instead I agree with those who don't believe Israel will go far enough. Israelis who think Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza demonstrates a willingness to also leave the West Bank overlook his deputy Dov Weissglass' acknowledgment that the pullout's real purpose is to reduce pressure to do more. Both Israeli intransigence (seen in recent decisions to continue building the Separation Wall with thousands ofPalestinians living on the Israeli side and to add thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers east of Jerusalem) and the expected violent response make future stability unlikely.

Even if Israel leaves the entire West Bank and agrees to a Palestinian state with an East Jerusalem capital -- unlikely, but conceivable if pragmatists rather than super-nationalists take charge -- the most difficult issue remains: Palestinian refugees. At a Ramallah refugee research center, a sociologist and a former Palestinian Cabinet minister agreed that past Israeli negotiators understood most refugees won't move to Israel if they're offered compensation to rebuild lives in Palestine or settle in countries ready to absorb them. But Israeli refusal to grant a formal Right of Return could be a deal breaker. For Palestinians, Return is an ideal, a crucial recognition of Israel's responsibility for the Nakba, their 1948 Catastrophe.

For Israelis, Return is a threat. The assumption that a higher Palestinian birthrate will someday lead to a Palestinian majority makes Israeli refusal inevitable, even among many who acknowledge the injustice their country's birth inflicted on Arab residents. Perhaps the knowledge that their government has treated its Arab citizens so poorly adds to fears that an Arab majority would respond in kind. More central, though, is that an Arab majority would end the Jewish state's Jewish identity unless it resorts to South Africa-style apartheid. That possibility is hard for me to imagine, but the right-wing assertion that "democracy is not a Jewish value" makes many as uneasy today as Gidon Elad was forty years ago. Even the Israeli Supreme Court wrestles inconsistently with the conflict between equal rights and Jewish privilege.

I wrestle reluctantly with a further implication: If Israel itself is destined for an Arab majority -- a possibility further in the future even without returning refugees -- what rationale remains for two separate states rather than one?

Exploring the Feasibility of a Single State

Calls for a single democratic secular state from Mediterranean Sea to Jordan River used to strike me as insincere subterfuge. Over the past few years, though, as Israel's intentionally created "facts on the ground" made complete West Bank withdrawal politically unfeasible, and as I've tried to adopt a universal-justice perspective rather than a tribal Jewish one, I've come to recognize one state is more justifiable than two. Zionism's separatist path no longer seems noble necessity as much as exclusivist anachronism.

I don't expect a single state, which would itself raise many complications. International momentum envisions two. Indeed, when Israeli professors at a January conference in Jerusalem began talking about one future state, their Palestinian counterparts dismissed the subject as impossible. In the end, if Abbas and Sharon produce an agreement that satisfies both populations, I will be relieved. But the lengths to which Israel will still resort to ensure its future Jewish identity make me uneasy.

After returning to Brookline in late January, I resisted resuming my ordinary routines. Even today my visit's sights and sounds hold me. I follow the news, and periodically I expose my uncertainties on my weblog. Perhaps inevitably, I'm looking into returning next year, this time for more than a month.

For much of my time in Jerusalem, I stayed at the Notre Dame Hotel, just barely in Arab East Jerusalem across from the Old City's New Gate. When I'd leave the building, I could turn right toward the center of Jewish Jerusalem less than 10 minutes away, or left toward the closer Arab downtown across from Damascus Gate. In both directions I could find people confident -- despite everything -- that things will work out. I hope to discover, when I return, that their sense of the future proves more accurate than mine.

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