Early Israeli Nationalism
My father, like nearly all Israeli males, dreamed of being an air force pilot. And like nearly all Israeli males, he didn’t make it through the extraordinarily difficult recruitment process, his poor vision eliminating him from contention at the very first cut. Instead, he joined an IDF infantry unit sometime in late 1966.
It would have been a terrifying time to become an Israeli soldier. Just a few months after my father joined the IDF, in spring 1967, Egypt’s Nasser was busy amassing roughly 100,000 troops in Sinai near Israel’s southwestern border. He had just expelled the UN peacekeeping mission that had been in the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez War in 1956, when Israel, England and France jointly attacked Egypt in response to Egypt’s attempted nationalization of the canal. Then, on May 22nd, Nasser “closed” the Straights of Tiran to Israeli shipping despite explicit warnings Israel would consider this casus belli, a justification for war.
My father’s unit, under the overall command of a 39 year old Major General named Ariel Sharon, prepared for war. When Israel struck first and destroyed the entire Egyptian air force in about two hours, the tone was set. As the mythology goes, Israel was attacked by all its neighbors and still managed to defeat the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in just six days.
The story of the Six Day War left a powerful impression of nationalistic pride. My family, after being massacred in the death camps of Poland, was now on the winning side. And not just any victorious side, but one famed for its technical expertise, discipline, and morality. This was something my youthful male mind could really appreciate. I saw my father as a sort of military hero.
Holocaust: Death and Survival
After occupying an Egyptian town on the Sinai Peninsula for a year, my father’s military service was completed and he left Israel to go to an American university. A couple years later, my grandparents followed him to the US after growing concern about the future of Israel. Because of this move, my grandparents were ever-present when I was small and so became two of the primary objects of my attention, love, and respect. Their biographies, more than any influence of which I am conscious, gives shape to my current perspective on Israel/Palestine.
My grandmother was one of five siblings in her family, which lived in a medium-sized town in south-eastern Poland. She was 14 years old when World War II began. When it ended, two brothers, one sister, and my grandmother had survived, largely because they were young and strong and working as slave labor instead of just being murdered outright. The rest of the family, nuclear and extended, were dead. My grandfather was one of eight brothers and sisters and a proportionally large extended family. But they didn’t fare as well as my grandmother’s family. By the time the Holocaust ended, he was alone. Completely alone. He spent a few days wandering around the ruins of concentration camps, searching for the only sibling who he did not know for certain had been killed. He was never found.
After several months, my grandparents met each other in a refugee camp in Germany. They were among the set of early Jewish marriages in post-Holocaust Europe, people desperate to regain some modicum of the humanity that had been stripped away. My father was born there, in that refugee camp, in 1948. One month later, with my grandmother extremely ill from a breast infection, my grandparents and my baby father boarded a boat for the new, three month old country called Israel.
Growing up, Israel always had in my mind the quality of redemption one can easily imagine existing among these Jewish boat people, refugees from ovens and mass graves. Every time I heard Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, I thought about this redemption. Israel’s almost metaphysical quality was never tarnished by what I thought was the irrational hatred and violence of the Arabs in the Middle East, which was, in my mind, just a continuation of the prejudice and hostility that my grandparents had already went through. It wasn’t until much later, as an adult, that the first couple blemishes emerged in my until then fairly uniformly glowing thoughts about Israel.
I distinctly remember the first cracks in my Zionist nationalism. I was always taught that Israel was attacked by all its neighbors in the Six Day War, which was, of course, largely why the victory was so impressive. But then I learned it was Israel that had attacked first in what has become a classical case of preemptive self-defense. Yes, Egypt had moved soldiers to the border and closed the Straights, but it was Israel that struck the first military blow. The Egyptian air force was destroyed on the tarmac. This was worrying. Preemptive self-defense, as we learned with the US military misadventures in Iraq, is a very ambiguous and politically charged thing. Now it seems Israel was guilty of the same thing. Would war have broken out if Israel did not attack? We will of course never know, but I was certain that being an aggressor was not something to be taken lightly. The second instance, far more troubling than the first, was learning about the more than one million Palestinians who lived in Palestine before Israel was established. If that’s the case, where did the idea of “a land without a people for a people without a land” come from? The catchy idiom adopted a very sinister character. Suddenly, I began to question all my received wisdom on Israel.
What I discovered made for an unpleasant, deeply disconcerting period of my life. I learned about Jewish paramilitary activity against the British, about Jewish massacres of Palestinians in 1948, about Israel’s relentless bombing of urban Beirut in 1982, about Israel’s responsibility in the massacres of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, about settlements. I had never heard in all my years as a Jew and Israeli about settlements!
My worldview was shifted by this new knowledge. I will never be the same again.
My family and friends, indeed my people, escaped from Europe’s ghettos not to an empty and inviting land, as was commonly insinuated if not argued directly. The essential fact is that the Jews sought a new life, a new state, that could only arise at the expense of the Palestinians. In my view, the fundamental contradiction of this spiritual and physical project is the primary source of Jewish-Arab conflict since the early 20th century.
My grandparents are no longer alive. Yet because of their suffering, shared with me during a million Polish meals, conveyed as another million words left unsaid because of unhealed wounds, I learned how to identify suffering and its social consequences. And because of hearing my grandparents speak about the sheer joy of speaking Yiddish and Hebrew in Israel, to be surrounded by Yiddish and Hebrew speakers, without fear of being pelted by rocks thrown by racist Poles or being rounded up by German executioners, I can grasp perfectly the intoxicating draw of community and power. In other words, my grandparents’ history has taught me to empathize with all those who have been dehumanized by violence, both as victim and victimizer. This lesson is in many ways the essence of a hybrid state.
As Jews, Israelis, and Americans, we must recognize not only that the maintenance of an ethnically exclusive state for the Jews is anachronistic and possible today only through massive violence. We must also accept that the establishment of Israel in the first instance required the wholesale denial of Palestinian rights, the same rights we were simultaneously claiming for ourselves. This contradiction is the profound burden that Zionism carries, which cannot be avoided except by coming to terms with the historical and contemporary injustice for which Jews are responsible.
There is a way for Israel/Palestine to heal. Jews do not need to live under paranoia-causing insecurity. Palestinians do not need to live under the boot of occupation and dispossession.
The security of Jews and Palestinians is intertwined with the inherent human rights of both peoples. Our fates are inextricably linked, our national identities are forever interwoven, and so our collective healing is jointly determined.
Peace and justice for each nation will come only with peace and justice for both nations.
This is the fact of Israel/Palestine.