By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.
There on the willows we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
. — Psalm 137
When I was growing up, Israel was a source of pride and an example of a new kind of nation. A small country with great heart. What has happened to that vision? How did we get here? How did Israel become the bully, the corporate state, the military state? This is what perpetual war does to people.
Israel was born one year before me, and I think of us as growing up together and growing apart. I cannot express how proud my family was of Israel. We saw it as a brand new country that even had a brand new language—modern Hebrew. Before the creation of Israel, there was no modern Hebrew. It was a place for the displaced, the refuse of the world, the nation comprised of people no other country wanted. For the first time since 72 AD, the Jews had a real home. And of course, this was right after the Holocaust, which was the culmination of centuries of exile, hatred and murder.
As a kid and even as a very young adult, all I knew of Israel was her glory. I read the book, Exodus, by Leon Uris and saw the movie starring Paul Newman—another Jewish hero of sorts. They both glorified the fight for independence from the British, the brave freedom fighters of the Irgun. (The word “terrorist” was still unheard of.) I heard about how the Israelis made the desert bloom, about the kibbutz collectives, where communities lived collectively and raised their children communally. And I also heard about the “bad” Arabs who for some reason could not abide this tiny country in their midst. After all, Israel was the only country in the entire region that had not even one drop of oil. I don’t remember hearing the term Palestinian—only about generic Arabs.
And then I heard about the miraculous Six Day War. Six days! That’s all it took for the brave Israelis to beat the entire Arab world– The Arab world who attacked them, unprovoked. And what they gained from that war was the biggest prize of all: Jerusalem, the Temple Wall, which is the holiest place in the world to Jews. The sacred remnant of biblical Judaism, which the Jordanians used as a sewer, literally pissed on in passing. This was followed by other victories: The Raid on Entebbe, the Achille Lauro, The Yom Kippur War and Golda Meir—the first woman to be Prime Minister. It all seemed so noble. And in all those days, Israel was secular. We barely heard, if at all, about the Orthodox throwbacks who lived in Israel, the fanatics who still dressed as if they were in 19th century Poland. They were such an insignificant minority and Sabras scorned them too. Israel, after all, was founded by secular Zionists, European Jews who were modern, highly educated. It was a gradual process by which the other Jews made their way to Israel. First, the Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries, whom we back then considered naturally backward, having lived in oppressive countries, like Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Libya. And then, Operation Moses, where the Ethiopian Jews were airlifted en masse to Israel. I thought that Israel had really come of age then, when they could accept such exotic people as Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas, as they were called then.
And then, something changed. As I became an adult, I heard more troubling stories. I heard that the non-European Jews were often discriminated against. The Israeli’s seemed more arrogant. Those I met in the US were kind of obnoxious, with a cynical bent and a world-weariness—and a toughness. All that I could still overlook, as we knew that it took a special person to live in Israel. American Jews still admired and respected them—indeed, we saw them as the keepers of the flame, while we lived the soft, assimilated life. In a sense, they were being the authentic Jews for us, by proxy. And American Jewry was happy to pay them for it. If I were a pre-reformation Catholic, I would say that the Israelis were our living indulgences. We even used the word “aliyah,” which means “to go up” or “to rise up”, for moving to Israel, as if moving to Israel was the goal of all Jews. And Israelis knew that for all our talk, the vast majority of the world’s Jews would never want to live there. They looked down on us.
As you can tell, I am not writing this as either an historian or as an objective observer. I have provided time lines for that below. I am writing as I remember the loss of the Israel I knew, and my memories are emotional and one-sided and irrational. As I recall, things started to go badly for my relationship to Israel when Prime Minister Yitzhach Rabin was assassinated.
Rabin was assassinated November 4, 1995 at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo peace Accords. The assassin was a right-wing religious Zionist who strenuously opposed Rabin’s peace initiative and particularly the signing of the Oslo Accords.
The assassination of Rabin was the culmination of Israeli right-wing dissent over the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin was vilified personally by ultra-orthodox conservatives and Likud leaders who perceived the Oslo peace process as an attempt to forfeit the occupied territories. Contrary to Likud’s accusations, Rabin was focused on the consolidation of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. He planned to give the Palestinian Liberation Organization control of 90% of the West Bank’s Arab population, while retaining 70% of the land in the occupied territories. Hardly what I would call an appeaser!
Likud Leader (and future Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu accused Rabin’s government of being “removed from Jewish tradition…and Jewish values.” Netanyahu addressed protesters of the Oslo movement at rallies where posters portrayed Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform or being target by in the crosshairs of a sniper. Rabin accused Netanyahu of provoking violence, a charge which Netanyahu strongly rebuffed. What does this remind us of? The parallels to me are stunning—the Right wing is always the Right wing: Religious hypocrites who worship war and conquest. They wrap themselves in whichever flag is handy and proclaim their patriotism while vilifying those who want reason and peace.
The assassination of Rabin was a shock to the Israeli public, and to world Jewry. Now, “we have met the enemy and it is us.”
I believe Rabin’s murder all but doomed future prospects for Israelis and Palestinians to come together and achieve a peace agreement. The assassination also signaled that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories had become, as it remains today, an explosive point. The lasting influence of Rabin’s death meant that the specter of future assassination or civil war in Israel if many settlements were removed appears to have encouraged future Israeli prime ministers to back settlement expansion while declaring their eagerness for peace with the Palestinians. Additionally, the assassination heightened tension between the Labor and Likud parties to an unprecedented level. The emotionally-charged climate is still simmering today. They are, again, parallels between the Republicans and the Democrats here in the US.
I have seen a hardening of Israel’s heart over the years. The exiled have become the exilers, the brutalized the brutalizers. I know of a few young Israeli soldiers who speak of the Palestinians as animals. They have dehumanized their enemy as the Nazis did the Jews. I see few rays of hope other than some sane sense that peace is always made between enemies, and that the state of Israel’s national security, if not its national psyche is at stake. Peace Now is one such ray, and I have been a member since Oslo. Here is their profile:
This is a timeline of the wars fought by Israel since becoming a state:
1.) 1948 War of Independence (November 1947 – July 1949) — started by a 6 month civil war between Jewish and Arab militias at the end of the British Mandate and that turned into a regular war after the declaration of independence of Israel and the intervention of several Arab armies. It established the green Line between Israel and the west Bank.
2.) The Sinai War (October 1956) – a military attack on Egypt by Britain, France and Israel beginning on 29 October 1956 with the intention to occupy the Sinai peninsula and to take over the Suez Canal.
3.) The Six Day War (June 1967) – fought between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The nations of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria also contributed troops and arms to the Arab forces.
4.) War of Attrition (1968-1970) – a limited war fought between Israel and Egypt, the USSR and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was initiated by the Egyptians as a way of recapturing the Sinai from the Israelis.
5.) Yom Kippur War (October 1973) – fought from October 6 to October 26, 1973 by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel as a way of recapturing part of the territories which they lost to the Israelis back in the Six-Day War.
6.) First Lebanon War (1982) – began in 6 June 1982, when the IDF invaded Lebanon. The government of Israel ordered the invasion as a response to the assassination attempt against Israel’s ambassador to the UK.
7.) Second Lebanon War (summer 2006) – began as military operation in response to the abduction of two Israeli reserve soldiers by the Hezbollah.
Violent confrontations that were not recognized as wars:
8.) The retribution operations (in the 1950s) – originally held to get a high ‘blood cost’ in the Arab side for every terror action made by the Feydayeen who occasionally infiltrated into Israel to conduct attacks.
9.) Black September in Jordon (1970-71) took place when PLO attempted to take power in Jordan backed by Syria. Israel backed up King Hussien, and launched an airstrike on the Syrian forces.
10.) Operation Litani (March 1978)- The 1978 South Lebanon conflict (code-named Operation Litani by Israel) was an invasion of Lebanon up to the Litani River carried out by the Israel Defense Forces in 1978.
11.) Fighting in Southern Lebanon (1985 – 2000) – Israeli invasion of Lebanon with the initial goal of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization.
12.) The First Intifada (Erupted in December 1987) – was a mass Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule that began in the Jabalia refugee camp and quickly spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
13.) The Gulf War (1991) – during the war the major cities in Israel were attacked by missiles which were launched from Iraq. Israel abstained from military retaliation in response to the Iraqi attack.
14.) The al-Aqsa Intifada (Erupted in September 2000) – the second massive Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
15.) Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) – a military operation of the IDF held in the Gaza Strip. The strikes were a response to frequent Palestinian rocket and mortar fire on its southern civilian communities.
I can only conclude that 15 armed conflicts in 60 years of existence makes a people insane. That’s the only logical conclusion. By contrast, as an American of the same age, I have only experienced two and those—along with 9/11– has had effects on our psyche too.
For a really great video interactive history of Israel, I highly recommend this short piece put together by the Council of Foreign Relations:
A poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Dawish
Without exile, who am I?
Stranger on the bank, like the river . . . tied up to your
name by water. Nothing will bring me back from my free
distance to my palm tree: not peace, nor war. Nothing
will inscribe me in the Book of Testaments. Nothing,
nothing glints off the shore of ebb and flow, between
the Tigris and the Nile. Nothing
gets me off the chariots of Pharaoh. Nothing
carries me for a while, or makes me carry an idea: not
promises, nor nostalgia. What am I to do, then? What
am I to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing takes me away from the butterfly of my dreams
back into my present: not earth, nor fire. What
am I to do, then, without the roses of Samarkand? What
am I to do in a square that burnishes the chanters with
moon-shaped stones? Lighter we both have
become, like our homes in the distant winds. We have
both become friends with the clouds’
strange creatures; outside the reach of the gravity
of the Land of Identity. What are we to do, then . . . What
are we to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing’s left of me except for you; nothing’s left of you
except for me — a stranger caressing his lover’s thigh: O
my stranger! What are we to do with what’s left for us
of the stillness, of the siesta that separates legend from legend?
Nothing will carry us: not the road, nor home.
Was this road the same from the start,
or did our dreams find a mare among the horses
of the Mongols on the hill, and trade us off?
And what are we to do, then?
are we to do
But I guess Bob Marly says it beautifully too.