Updated: Oct 23
By and large, I don’t let the news feeds into my life. For approximately the same reason that I don’t watch horror movies or read Stephen King novels. But the Hamas rockets broke through my defensive barrier.
My first thought: Oh my God, did these guys (the Palestinians who launched the rockets) think about how many Palestinians, women and children, were going to die in the Israeli reprisals? I can only imagine the anger that sparked the rocket launch, the devastatingly oppressive conditions under which so many Palestinians live. I don’t understand it — how could I understand it, living my relatively privileged retirement? — but I have some appreciation for it. It must bear some resemblance to the anger which we saw boil over on our streets in response to police killings. I’ve seen some of the anger in our schools. But I am terrified of the violence which I anticipate in the Israeli response.
My second thought comes a day later. I don’t think Israel is going to survive. I am not thinking that Israel is about to lose this battle with Hamas. The Israeli weaponry is too vastly superior. I am just seeing that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, of what is largely the indigenous population, is breeding the conditions in which the massive rage of the oppressed will eventually overwhelm Israel. Israel is an island in an Islamic world. I am frightened that Israel will not survive, and I am surprised by that fear.
I am not a Zionist. My parents were not Zionists. We were anti-imperialists although, apparently, we have a family connection with Zionism. There is a story my father used to tell about his mother. I remember her only as an old lady and a wonderful storyteller. She was the first woman pharmacist in Canada. Daddy’s story was about the weekly salons she hosted in their Halifax home when Dad was growing up. According to the story, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and other leaders of the Zionist movement were salon regulars. Daddy was a great storyteller too, so I never quite believed his story. But years later, after Dad had passed, Aunt Ruth, a truth teller confirmed it. In our family, this had always been a story of pride in Grandma.
Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was always an embarrassment. Jews should not be behaving this way. In my unorthodox Jewish heritage, “Thank God, he’s not Jewish,” was the inevitable comment when the radio announced that some horrible fugitive had been captured. We had dodged a bullet. As my mother often said, “Fascism was always right around the corner.” Antisemitism was always right around the corner. Bad behavior by Jews was more than embarrassing. It was dangerous behavior that could spark a pogrom.
Growing up, I didn’t see the danger that my mother saw around the corner. By the time I graduated from high school, I didn’t even Identify myself as Jewish. I thought this was what “freedom of religion” meant. That I could choose my religious identity.
And then I went off to college in Minnesota, and there I discovered that I had no choice, that to the world I was Jewish no matter what I called myself. My best friend’s mother wouldn’t let me visit. She would not have a Jew in her house. Another classmate, meaning no harm, patted my head. He wanted to feel my horns. He was just curious.
This was benign stuff, but I began to understand what my mother was talking about.
I live with Jewish anxiety, but there is something more, something that arises from my sense of what it means to be a Jewish — I never put this into words before — is to recall our bondage in Egypt. We were slaves — as hard as that is for me to really picture — and we were liberated from bondage. Hard to picture, but that experience is in my bones. It is in my marrow. I have always been on the side of the oppressed. It is what drew me to Roshi Bernie and his vision of “bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded.”
I have never been to Israel, never wanted to go there, for the same reasons that I didn’t want to go to South Africa during Apartheid. I did not want to give even the appearance of support to an oppressive regime. At least about South Africa, my mother could say, “Thank God they’re not Jewish.”
My mother is looking smarter than ever. Fascism and antisemitism are right around the corner. How quickly the haters don Nazi insignia. I haven’t wanted to go to Israel, but in the aftermath of the Hamas rockets, I realize how important it is for there to be a haven, a safe harbor for the Jews.
I am surprised and torn by this feeling.
I know what I want, and I am afraid that I can’t have what I want. I want Israel to be a haven I am proud of. I have enough shame and embarrassment here in America. I find some consolation in the fact that while America was stealing the land and decimating the Native Peoples, while America was growing on the backs of the enslaved, my people were not here. We were scurrying across the Ukraine one jump ahead of the Cossack swords.
I don’t want Israel to embarrass me, and I am frightened that it is too late. So many people have suffered from the Zionist dream that there may be no path to healing. I haven’t given up on America. But as an outsider, I can see no way out for Israel. I hope that there are Israelis who can see a path and that Israel will listen.