We landed early this morning at JFK, and right now I’m trying to figure out what time-zone I’m in. I’m listening to a CD that I bought of Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Hanoch, two of Israel’s top singer-songwriters, in concert together. I’ve always felt grounded by Israeli pop music, because it reminds me of a time when I was younger and more innocent, and my experience of Israel then often involved long bus rides listening to the radio along with the other passengers. My hebrew isn’t what it was then, but I still like to think that Israel’s musicians are the purest expression of the best of what modern Israel can offer–their music is honest, full of yearning for love and peace, and completely Jewish without an ounce of religious orthodoxy (at least the artists I follow).
Once in my life I was innocent enough to accept all those songs at face value, to believe that Israel wanted peace more than anything else. Now I know the story is much, much more complicated. My eyes started to open in my late teens and early twenties, at a time when I and my then-to-be wife Leslie seriously contemplated making aliyah to a kibbutz, along with a group of close friends from our summer camp days. Little things that I noticed bothered me: the fact that cars registered to Arabs in Israel have a different color license plate than to Jews, making them easier for police to spot and pull over; the fact that many kibbutzim, socialist in name and internal practice, sit on formerly Arab land and have no Arab members. I was already full of pacifist leanings, and the idea of having to serve in the Israeli Army, if I did make aliyah, bothered me immensely. And I was even more bothered by the idea that if I chose to conscientiously object, I’d never be accepted as a “full” participant in Israeli public life. (I know this has changed somewhat in recent years, but we’re talking the early 1980s now.) Ultimately, we chose not to make aliyah, obviously, but given all the family we have living in Israel, we’ve never abandoned the connection.
I’m not going to blog about the intimate facts of my extended family in Israel. (On my mother’s side, I have an aunt and an uncle and various cousins with their own children.) I’ll just say that they’re a mix of working class and middle class people, of both Ashkenazi (Western) and Mizrachi (Eastern) background. And they’ve had more than their share of life’s hard knocks. Whenever we visit–and my mother makes this trip at least once a year–we try to offer as much support as we can. But some of their difficulties are deeply ingrained. This is a part of my Israel experience too, and one that colored the last few days of our time on this visit. But I’m not going to go there. Not now anyhow.
Back to politics. During this trip, I re-read David Grossman’s book The Yellow Wind, and I also read a collection of dispatches written by Amira Hass in her role as Ha’aretz’s correspondent from the occupied territories. It was a useful counterpoint to the tour we got on the helicopter ride, which climaxed with a close-up view of the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza and a visit to a synagogue that had been hit by one of the daily Kassem rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli border town of Sderot. Our guide, an American-Israeli named Calev Ben-David, concluded his explanation of the situation there by arguing for Israel’s current policy of “targeted killings”–where the Air Force fires missiles at Palestinian militants that they have identified as bomb-makers, sometimes killing innocents at the same time. From his point of view, everything Israel is doing is justified self-defense.
Amira Hass makes you think twice, hard, about that argument. Her work covers the years between 1999-2002, when the brief hopes of the Oslo process and the Rabin-Arafat handshake all went sour and the second intifada began. If I can, I’ll dig up some links to the most cogent articles in the collection. She documents, in careful and excruciating detail, how Israel has dominated the Palestinian population, and how the ongoing expansion of settlements during the Oslo period (when they were supposed to be frozen) and the ongoing humiliations of daily life and Israeli military action in the territories embittered and helped kill Palestinian hopes for a peaceful solution to their predicament. Again and again, you read of an arbitrary house demolition, or a permit refusal, and the sum total of these experiences begins to weigh heavily on the notion that justice is all on Israel’s side.
I don’t know what has happened to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian compromise or even dialogue. (Unfortunately, there just wasn’t time on this visit for me to see some of my old friends who are still involved in the Israeli peace movement.) Clearly, the outbreak of the second intifada (triggered by Ariel Sharon’s provocative stroll on the grounds of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in Sept. 2000) and the failure of the Camp David summit between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat later that year, and the usage of lethal force and then suicide bombing by Palestinian militants, has poisoned nearly all possibility for dialogue, though it’s clearly not completely dead. But the rise of the “security fence” and the enormous consensus among Israeli Jews in its favor, suggests that we are into a new chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One glimpse of what that might be came in a conversation with one of my cousins…
Friday morning last week we drove to the artist’s colony of Ein Hod, nestled in the hills about a half hour south of Haifa. My cousin Nechama and her partner Nadav have made their home there, and this week they were hosting a menagerie of artists from all over Europe who were visiting and creating art while on their visit. Their home, which doubles as their studio and display space, was overflowing with half finished paintings. Two of the visiting artists held a playful “instant art” competition in the road below their house, complete with a referee who timed each stroke of paint. It was a delight to see Nechama in her element, the ringmaster of a gentle exhibition of creativity.
On the way there, I recounted the details of our previous days with Katy, another cousin of mine, who was driving us, along with her mother and mine and Jesse, on the visit. On past visits, Katy has struck me as generally not one to talk about politics, out of a general disgust with men in public life (she grew up in Netanya, which has a reputation as one of Israel’s most chauvinistic cities). On this trip though, politics was very much on her mind. The day we arrived she told me there was a big demonstration against the light punishment given to disgraced Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who apparently harassed and molested and perhaps even raped many of the women who worked in his office. At her house later, she talked about how she couldn’t bear the thought of her grandchildren potentially having to go into the army and asked how we were going to end this cycle. And on the car ride to Ein Hod, she objected to my singling out the director of Israel 21c for living in Ma’aleh Adumim and not mentioning to our tour group that that was a settlement.
“Netanya is a settlement too, you know,” Katy said. “So is Tel Aviv. The Arabs say that, and I think they are right. There is no difference between Netanya and Ma’aleh Adumim.” For a minute, she had me floored. At some level, it’s true. A hundred or so years ago, there was not much of a Jewish presence in this area, other than a community in Jerusalem. When the first Zionists came to settle places like Tel Aviv and Netanya, they were a minority of the population—the same way today’s settlers in the West Bank are a minority of the population.
But to accept Katy’s argument, you have to ignore one critical difference. When the first Zionists came to settle in Palestine, the ruling power was initially Turkish (the fading Ottoman Empire) and then, after WWI, British. There was no state of Israel in any boundaries at all, and the state that came into being was the product of the UN partition plan and then a climactic war between the nascent state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Tel Aviv was the heart of a new country that was a majority Jewish, and that began its existence with the imprint of the United Nations (even if the 1949 armistice boundaries were beyond what was contemplated in the 1947 partition plan).
By comparison, when Israel began settling the West Bank and Gaza, it was doing so as a sovereign state acting in contravention of international law governing the responsibilities of an occupying power, and it did so in places where there was an overwhelming Arab majority.
But there may be something to what Kati said, nonetheless. There was a sense in her words that in the wake of the failure of the Oslo process Israel is no longer facing an adversary that is willing to compromise around the 1967 boundaries, that this is an existential conflict over whether or not to roll back the reality created in 1948. Certainly that is the sense one gets from the rhetoric of Hamas. But I still have to ask, who missed the opportunity of the 1990s? Was it just Arafat? That answer may make many Israelis feel better, but critics like Amira Hass certainly makes a strong case that the Israelis also misunderstood their adversaries, and traded the peace of the brave for a humiliating non-peace, one that is now bearing very bitter fruit.
Perhaps you can begin to see why I stopped writing intensively about this issue a decade or so ago…it’s so frustrating.