It’s been a long journey, one I’m sure isn’t even close to being complete. To be writing such scathing criticisms of Israel isn’t something I thought I’d be doing. In fact it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d be spewing vitriol at anyone who wrote the kind of stuff I’ve been writing over the last couple of weeks.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a book I used to read over and over when I was about 14 at school. It was a book about Israeli commandos during the 1950s and 60s. It told tales of the Jewish warriors of the 20th century. Men like Meir Har Zion, Tzapapo and Raful Eitan. Men who were Jews who fought, who didn’t hide from attack, men who made the enemy pay for their attacks on Jews. And this was the man I wanted to be. I guess that was the age I decided that I was going to be a Paratrooper in the IDF.
My head was filled with Israel all through that time and beyond. My dreams were of our history here in this land. Of how Jewish blood had fertilized our soil in order to grow our Jewish state. Israel, the one place in the world where Jews could live freely, could breathe free air, could walk around without fear of the ‘other’.
I even lamented being born in 1979 and not 1929. I wanted to have been present at the founding of our nation state, to have had the honor of fighting to bring it into being, to have been one of the brave who were parachuted into the Mitla Pass of the Sinai Desert. To have made my mark on the founding of this beautiful country.
I read Exodus and then I read it again. Then I found Herman Wouk’s even more impressive The Hope and the sequel The Glory and I was in love with the Israel that had been built especially for me. I read Chaim Herzog’s fantastic book Israel’s Wars and I read Muki Betzer’s book Secret Soldier. I cried while reading Avigdor Kahalani’s autobiography during his depiction of the events in the Valley of Tears during the Yom Kippur War and of course I read of the courage of our greatest ever commando, Yoni Netanyahu, the bravest of the brave, the best of the best.
These were not mere men they were my heroes, my role models, my idols.
I shouted at the television whenever I watched the BBC, so dismayed was I by the way my beautiful Israel was depicted. Israel with enemies on all sides, Israelis with their backs to the sea being slandered and torn apart by journalists who knew nothing. Each issue affecting Israel was one of life and death, each Israeli death a tragedy, each terrorist killed a victory.
And then I made it here to Israel and achieved my dream, I earned that red beret. I was awarded the commander’s beret for outstanding performance during training. I had done something no one could ever take away from me. I had moved from becoming a fan sitting in the stands to a player on the field.
I was an actor in the drama now, no longer seated in the audience.
My army service was dominated by a demand for more. More action, more adventure, more terrorists, more shooting, more enemies to kill. This was MY time. The Second Intifada was MY Mitla Pass, MY Valley of Tears, MY time to be the hero, to be the one who stood up, rifle in hand telling the terrorists I WILL NOT LET YOU PAST ME.
This had been my dream and I was living it.
But perhaps I should have been careful what I wished for. Dreams don’t mix so well with reality. I did everything they told me to do and I volunteered for more operations. I fired rubber bullets and threw stun grenades and I fired real bullets and experienced them being fired at me. I participated in operations that resulted in the arrest of real terrorists. Of suicide bombers led from their holes and I would look at them and see the lives of the 20 people that they never got the chance to kill and feel the thrill of doing something that was truly holy.
There were other operations too. Operations like wandering around Hebron with a list of names of kids ranging in age from 7 – 14 years old to arrest them. Operations like hanging around in the center of Nablus firing rubber bullets at civilians and throwing gas grenades because my orders were to enforce a day long curfew no matter who broke it. There was that time my friend shot a mother of 2 before their very eyes because it was dark and she was peeking through a window right after a terrorist had fired at us.
I remember this and I remember more.
I finished my military service and something had broken inside me, though I didn’t know what it was. My Zionism was broken, my fantasies of glory were all gone. I left the land that had featured in my hopes and dreams for so long. I left and I went back to London and brooded for six years until I understood.
I understood that I had been wrong. I understood that the problem had never been Israel it had been me. Israel wasn’t the words of Uris or Wouk. Israel wasn’t a land of bronzed invincible heroes but of real people dealing with life in their real, human ways. With all of the failings that implies. The real Israel could never have lived up to my boyhood fantasies. The army could never have delivered to me the glory that I desired.
Such glory only exists in the minds of young men not in the real world.
When Kahalani exited from his tank in the Valley of Tears in the Yom Kippur War he would have seen smoldering iron and smelt the flesh of the men being cooked within. The only glory to be had there is of the regular men who suffered and died to protect their country against other men who suffered and died at the whim of their dictator.
And so I read new books. I read Morris’ 1948, I read Tom Segev’s One Palestine Complete. I understood the truth about the creation of our country. We did throw the Palestinians out. We did attack them, we did force out civilians from what is now Israel. Then, knowing the reality of it all, I was still glad. I was glad that we had done it, I was glad because the need of us Jews for our country was greater. We needed a state and we took one. The stakes of that war for Israel’s Independence were clear. To the victor would go the spoils. We won, the spoils are ours.
Not a fairy tale, a real life history of killing, of crimes and nevertheless of victory against the odds.
But an understanding of the suffering which we imposed then, as well as my own experiences serving in the West Bank changed the way I look at Palestinians today. It also changed the way I look at Israeli politicians. Men and women who aren’t infallible. Men and women who can be petty and small minded and racist and corrupt. Oh how corrupt.
And I look around this country and I see all of this Zionist energy squandered so badly. All of these people who are willing to abandon their lives overseas for less money and a harder life just so that they can be players on the field rather than fans watching from the cheap seats. And my own Zionism returns even stronger than before. For now it’s based not on the fantasies of a boy with his fairy tales but on the reality of a man and his knowledge. And I say now that if Israel isn’t the country I thought it was then I can still aspire to change her for the better. Of course Israel isn’t that perfect country because there is no such thing as perfection but I can still work to make Israel that country to be proud of.
Israel, this young nation, this work in progress has room left in her for me and others like me to stamp our mark upon her.
I would say I have earned the right to criticize Israeli politicians, Israeli policy and the country as a whole as much as I like. But I don’t need to. Here, in free, democratic Israel no one needs to earn the right to say anything.
They just need to speak.