I first went to Israel in 1970-71 to do my junior year at the Hebrew University. I knew no Hebrew, i.e. I went to years of Hebrew school so I could at 20 years old say shalom and ani. I had met the preeminent Zionist scholar, Arthur Hertzberg, at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, known then as Brandeis given Bardin was alive. Arthur who I remained close with until his death in 2005 said, “What makes more sense, 4 years of rioting in Berkeley or 3 years of rioting in Berkeley and one year in Jerusalem. And I was blessed in more ways than I can easily delineate here to know him.
Only three years after the Six-Day War and the Occupation, nobody believed it would be allowed to endure–the holding of a million Arabs under military rule. Ben Gurion announced we should give it back immediately lest it eat us from the inside; in response he was exiled to his kibbutz in the Negev. I arrived late for the one year program, given I hadn’t applied but with a word from Arthur, I filled out my application at the Hebrew University office. Now what to do about my lack of Hebrew? They arranged a tutor and with few phones then, suggested I just go to her apartment. I knocked on the door. She answered and was rather rotund. She said, “Come in, I have 9 days until I deliver, I have to catch you up to the lowest ulpan (intensive Hebrew language course.)” She did. This is the best of Israel, the lack of conformity, the let’s get it done, the bravado and one that still exists but is in danger of being overwhelmed by zealotry.
In 1970, in that still-fresh country, people asked–will you come and move here and join us– merely everywhere you went. Almost two decades later, I wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about a Golani soldier who I picked up hitchhiking in the West Bank in 1987. He told me his parents had not survived the Holocaust to patrol refugee camps. He wanted to know how he could stay in Los Angeles. In a little-known statistic, over 1 million Israelis live permanently outside Israel. Most left for a combination of economic, personal advantages and to get away from war. One million is 25% of all Jewish Israelis though most of these remain strongly Zionist with a component heartily disillusioned by what Israel has been becoming for many years.
Many people go to Israel with rose-colored glasses. I had an Instagram friend who I don’t know, an American rabbi who recently took congregation members and was reporting from the Lebanon border about the Hezbollah threat. Entirely true and secondary to what’s going in the West Bank and the country itself. You used to be able to go to the beach at Tel-Aviv, swim in the Dead sea, frolic at Ein Gedi, view the Kinneret and ignore the West Bank. No longer–except for those with truly dark sunglasses on who refuse to look.
Benny Smotrich is a far right politician in Israel who serves as Minister of Finance right now. So he is mainstream. He has called for the razing of a Palestinian village from which attackers killed two Israeli citizens. The US government will not meet with him when he arrives shortly to speak at an Israel Bonds dinner. He wants a pogrom and Israeli Bonds is giving him a platform.
In the last decade as both Palestinian and settler violence grew, I no longer go to the West Bank unaccompanied to go to Palestinian villages and refugee camps and the Arab area of Hebron which is most of the city. I have gone with moderate Palestinians because I am afraid of Palestinian extremists.
But there are new tears to my sadness. I am more afraid now of rampaging settlers than Palestinians. I see videos frequently: settlers driving through Palestinian sheep flocks in the south Hebron Hills with simple malice. The IDF now, incredulously, and I’m a fluent Hebrew speaker, scares me. My son’s girlfriend was with a group this last summer in the West Bank moving boulders from where settlers blocked a road to a Palestinian village. These unarmed Jewish activists were hit by stun grenades and tear gas by IDF soldiers. Several were injured.
Daily now there are instances of soldiers and Israeli police siding with the settlers. I saw one yesterday of an Israeli police officer shoving a Palestinian girl of 10-12 hard to the ground, others kneeing on the faces of Israeli activists and Palestinians. Beating unarmed people with clubs as they’re on the pavement face down. Daily. Every day. Please don’t turn away.
Below a photo of me in Hebron in 2016. I went with Palestinians to Hebron as research for my novel, THE SPY’S GAMBLE. Hebron like much of this conflict is complex. Jews were murdered there in the 1920s and 1930s; by the 1948 armistice no Jews remained in the city. Slowly settlers gained permission to rebuild the Jewish quarter in the geographical center of town; when I wrote THE SPY’S GAMBLE there were 200; I believe there are now 800. They are surrounded by a quarter million Palestinians. It takes an entire Israeli brigade on full time service to protect them. At a 2015 lecture at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, the setttler spokeman for Hebron said, brazenly, matter-of-factly, “We are surrounded by a quarter million jihadis.” All the men women, and children of Hebron, he meant.
Pictured I’m in the Palestinian souq and the barbed wire marks the settler compound in Hebron. Here in 2016 the settlers purposely threw their trash out the window into the Palestinian area. The Palestinians had to erect a net over the souq to prevent bottles from raining down on him. So what is happening in Israel now, today, is not new. We have just been pretending it was not happening. Above, looking into the Settler compound from the Palestinian souq and an IDF soldier in Hebron in a permanent pill box.
Today in Huwara, the village from where the murderers of the two Israelis lived, and the one the settlers burned–IDF soldiers for 5th day have shuttered all the businesses in an act of collective punishment. There is no deterance in such an act; it is pure exercise of power.
At the heart of THE SPY’S GAMBLE is the question of power and powerlessness. How does a once powerless people act when they are the power in the region? Another friend of mine, Avraham Infeld, from those blessed 1970s at Brandeis Camp is the chairman emeritus of Hillel and one of the creators of Birthright. He is modern Orthodox and lectures to all incoming Israeli officers on pluralism.
I sat in his living room, given I always stay with him when in Jerusalem, to talk about Hebron where he lectures at the army base. As for the settlers in Hebron he suggests: “I don’t need to be living there, I can have Hebron in my heart. The way Palestinians who left Jaffa don’t need to return, they can have Jaffa in their hearts.”
As a once powerless people we have a great responsibility about wielding that power humanely and not defaulting to do to others what was done to us. Every Saturday night of late, Israelis who feel this way surge into the squares of Tel-Aviv and elsewhere to reclaim this view of Zionism. 400,000 last night. The president of Israel warns the country is on the verge of civil war. He is not exaggerating.
We must all in the diaspora join those 400,000 and not turn away and pretend it’s not happening.