I used to identify as an American, until my heart was conquered by Israel. I fell in love with this country and its people, in 1972, and made myself at home here. I have lived on kibbutz, worked in a variety of jobs. I’ve been a therapist and coach and I’ve consulted to managers and workers throughout the country. As a peace activist, I’ve encountered Israelis across the political spectrum, and I am in love with the people of this land. In the heat of political arguments, I so enjoy the directness and warm earnestness of these Israelis. Talk about occupied territory, my heart is occupied, captured by my country, by the people here, even when they try my patience. And I am captivated by our journey, whose path has yet to be cut into the forest of the future we are creating here.
Some of us are along for the ride. We live as spectators, reading the newspapers, resigned to spouting our opinions at Friday night dinners. Others of us have chosen to count ourselves as authors, those whose actions are creating the story we will one day tell our grandchildren. How will we face them when they ask, “Saba, what we you doing, when Israeli democracy and the possibility of peace were in the balance?”
As our prime minister struggles to distract us from the corruption prompting multiple investigations that threaten to bring him down, we cannot look to politicians for salvation. For years, Netanyahu and his gang have avoided opening negotiations with the PLO, claiming they don’t represent all Palestinians, since Hamas in Gaza does not accept PLO policy. Now that the PLO and Hamas are unifying, our government will not negotiate with an adversary that has united with “a terrorist organization.” Stalemate is the name of this game, and Netanyahu will do whatever is necessary to keep things frozen, as long as he can sell his bill of goods to the Israelis who blind themselves to his agile maneuvering. Change is up to us, and we must act now.
There’s a broad curve in the road coming back home from Tel Aviv. The Judean hills, seven layers deep in varying shades of green, are laid out before the driver. When I reach this turn, I look across, into the depth of these evergreens, and I feel like Daniel Boone, one boot up on a rock as he leans on his rifle and looks out over Kentucky. That’s what I call out to the curve, “Kaaaaaiiintucky!!”
This Daniel Boone moment, imposed onto my beloved Israel, links me to Boone the pioneer. Boone was also known for his skirmishes with the Indians of Kentucky. As in Israel, there was someone living in Kentucky when he arrived. Yet as I own Boone’s image, making him mine, what I cherish is the thought, not of conquering the Indians who live down among those Kentucky hills, but befriending them, seeking our commonality so we can make it work for everyone. Now that would be some smart pioneering! We Jews have known how to get along with indigenous peoples. When King David arrived in Jerusalem, the Jebusites were already living here. Rather than killing them, David forged an alliance, engaging Jebusite artisans and builders to work with him in developing the city.
Today, Israel longs to be settled. To settle down. Living for 50 years without agreed-upon borders, we are a restless people, and we want to finally feel at home. Frustrated, we roar our motorcycles impotently through residential neighborhoods, small dogs with big barks. We are cynical and sometimes smug. Our humor is biting, wry. In our everyday lives, we most fear that someone will pull one over on us. We are no one’s “friar,” sucker. In fact, we’re gonna screw you before you screw us. But what is beneath all this is a pervasive un-quiet. What we truly long for is safety, ease. We vacation in Europe and see serene places and people who don’t live as though it’s just a matter of time before the next crisis. Yet we have no idea how to get there. And there can be no true pioneering when people see life as an endless struggle to survive.
If there’s a way of not being settled, it’s to live in a “settlement.” The trouble with the “settlements,” is that they are there as a result of the use of force. Indeed, our very presence in all of Israel is the result of force. The vicious cycles of aggression-retribution can only be broken through agreement, through communication, and the wisdom of knowing that we can only be safe if the other is.
It’s going to be a stretch, for us Israelis. We must acknowledge the full responsibility that comes with the success of our conquest. Understanding that having a strong army not only prepares us for further troubles, but also enables us to soften our stance, to take risks we could not take if we were weak. Our strength enables creativity. Surely, we clever Israelis can turn our enemy into a partner, while staying alert to danger. Because we are strong, we can afford to behave as a partner, even before the other side does. Are we big enough, can we be brave enough to be gentle towards those who strike out at us because they have no power? Only if we can find this courage in ourselves, only then will we renew our hidden pioneering spirit, only then will we explore the forests of the future, imbued with the justice of our cause.
Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing together Palestinians and Israelis for people-to-people contact