Staying in Love with Israel

Washington – When I was 16, I fell in love – not with a girl but with Israel.

That summer, my family and I visited for the first time, a three-week trip that left me entranced. On the last day, August 29, 1970, I wrote in my diary: “As soon as I came, I had the idea that this is the country for me, and this feeling increased every day I was here until now I know this is my home.”

My love affair only deepened through subsequent kibbutz summers, volunteering for a year during the Yom Kippur War and the eight years I lived in the country. And even after I left, my love never waned.

But developments in recent years have increasingly prompted me to ask, what is it exactly about Israel that I love? Am I in love with the Israel of 30 or 40 years ago, or with the fantasy of an Israel that may never have truly existed other than in the heroic descriptions of the pioneers and the half-real world of Leon Uris?

There’s a song by Yonatan Geffen and David Broza that expresses this:

“They say it was great here before I was born; And everything was wonderful, before I arrived.”

The song goes on to list many of the classic images of Zionism’s heroic past:  a pioneer riding a white horse guarding the hills of Galilee on a dark night; Trumpledor fighting off marauders and sacrificing his life; little Tel Aviv miraculously sprouting on golden dunes; kibbutzniks wearing short pants; evenings around campfires passing the finjan.

Of course, legends are legends for a reason. King Arthur’s Camelot would have been a cold, stinking place where life was nasty, brutish and short had it ever existed. And it’s naïve to expect life to live up to one’s expectations at age 16. Nobody stays 16 forever.

In reality, Israel has found so many ways to preserve the dream under incredibly difficult circumstances. Tel Aviv today is far more vibrant and dynamic, and much more beautiful than it was when I lived there in the early 1980s. Israeli high-tech and pharmaceuticals are a wonder of the world; its drip agriculture offers hope for millions. So many of its people are incredibly creative, inventive, entrepreneurial, humanistic, cultured and compassionate.

But there is another side to Israel, which for me came increasingly into focus during the recent election campaign, although I was somewhat reassured by the vote itself. This is the Israel that is triumphalist, riven by religious conflicts, exclusionary, hostile to women, skeptical about democratic rights and downright racist toward Arabs.

Take for example Moshe Feiglin, who had a prominent place in the Likud-Beitenu parliamentary list and who has outlined a plan to pay Palestinian families $500,000 each to emigrate. Feiglin once told an interviewer: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.”

One could dismiss Feiglin as an aberration – but he’s not. He clearly represents the sentiments of many thousands of Israelis.

Speaking in the documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” former Shin Beth chief Avraham Shalom bluntly stated that Israel has lost its way. “The future is very dark,” he warned, after 40 years of a harsh occupation that, in his view, has degraded the morals of both the occupiers and the occupied.

What’s perhaps most distressing about Israel’s current direction is that almost everyone, even on the political left, seems to have given up on peace. Even in its darkest days, Israelis believed, as Naomi Shemer sang, that peace was not a dream and would come, if not tomorrow, then the day after. That vital optimism seems to have all but disappeared.

I understand that after the trauma of the Second Intifada and the perceived failure of the Gaza withdrawal, people are suspicious and cynical. I understand that constant rocket attacks make people angry and defensive and disinclined to take risks. But really, what is the alternative to peace?

The attitude of many seems to be that the status quo is quite bearable, even when few believe it’s sustainable in the long term. There’s a fin-de-siècle feeling in some Tel Aviv circles of “let’s party all night as long as we can” while others bury themselves in work and family and simply prefer not to think about the future beyond next week or next month.

What the last few years crystallized for me is that it is possible and even necessary to absolutely divorce my love of Israel from its current politics. That, in fact, is what our Biblical prophets did by appealing to our better selves. Prime Ministers, like the Kings of ancient Judea, come and go – but the idea of what Israel represents remains. One can love Israel and still oppose settlements and occupation and the denigration of women and minorities. For me, it’s the only way to stay in love.

Every lover idealizes the object of their affections, and I guess at this point I’m more in love with what Israel was – but also in what it can still become – than many aspects of what it is today. The Israeli national anthem states, “We have not yet lost hope…” and I have not. I would no more stop loving Israel than I would abandon my wife if, God forbid, she became sick.

It’s easy to be in love when one is 16 and full of idealism. The trick is sustaining that love throughout a lifetime.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.