Mishael Zion
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How will we know when it’s time to leave?

It's the taboo question of committed Zionists, but admitting that there's a red line is the most loyal thing I can do as an Israeli

It happens every few weeks, or days. Sitting on the couch, or in bed, we dig ourselves a pit of Israel despair. We obsess about how bad things are and wonder how much worse they are going to get. Invariably, the question arises: Is there a point where we get up and go? If the worst happens, where do we go? Who would take care of us? Should we move some savings to a bank account overseas? What would “the worst” look like – and how would we know that it’s time?

Sometimes “the worst” is threats from our external enemies. Since October 7, we,  like so many other Israelis, have played out all the worst-case scenarios in our minds. What if Hamas sent a thousand terrorists our way? What if it were 5,000? How do we defend our synagogue? Our street? Our home? We read that in the kibbutzim outside Gaza when the Hamas came to kill and kidnap them, their lives depended on being able to close the safe room door from the inside. We got a guy to come fix the rusty door of our building’s safe room. It was the first time all the neighbors agreed on a shared maintenance expense without debate. But the door was too rusted and he gave up. If the worst happened, would my children be safe? Does this mean it’s time to go?

Six months later, at 2 a.m., when Iran sent more than 300 missiles and drones toward Israel, when the windows in our Jerusalem home shuddered and the sirens wailed, I pulled my daughter out of bed and lied to her: “We’re safe, just come with me.” Is this what parents in Ashkelon feel every night? In Gaza City? In Kiryat Shmona? In Khan Younis? No parent should feel this way, Israeli or Palestinian. Is this what “time to leave” feels like? Flights were canceled. Then the airport closed. I was born in Israel, but have a US passport – maybe the embassy will send a boat out of Haifa? (They did it once in October). Will we stay or will we go? Will we leave before the worst happens, or only after?

Over the weeks and months of these dark conversations, a conclusion has crystallized within us: We will not leave Israel because of any external threat. No enemy will cause us to leave our homeland, the way our ancestors left Hungary or Lithuania, Baghdad or Cairo. We are here, at home. And when push comes to shove over the existence of Israel, we’d rather fight the battle from home, alongside our brethren, not watch it on social media from afar.

But something else has also crystallized. Something that one should not write on Israel’s Independence Day, a day for celebration and unity, but that this year must be said. The “worst-case scenario” I fear most deeply is not the sadistic terrorism of Yahya Sinwar or the direct missiles of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. “The worst” I fear is from the actions of my own government. If we leave Israel, and may that day never arrive, it will be because we lost the internal struggle for what Israel is and needs to be.

What is that moment? How will we recognize it? This is what I stay up half the night asking myself. For some, that moment arrived long ago, in 1967, or 1982, or 2006, or 2022, but not for me. I was born in Israel, and I believe in it, even though I have been on the losing side of the election 10 out of the last 12 times. We chose to return to Israel after five years in New York because we wanted to raise our daughters as Israelis. I believe in this country, in the decency of Israeli society, in the ideal of a liberal democratic and Jewish state – with all of the tensions therein.

I believe a life of dignity can be afforded to both Israelis and Palestinians between the river and the sea if our cultures and our leaders embrace each other’s existence. And I have spent my professional life dedicated to creating a richer and deeper Israeli culture, which I believe can be the crowning achievement of 3,000 years of Jewish life. Israel has made many mistakes and performed actions I am ashamed of, but it has also done so much that I am proud of, most recently in the way we came together in the days after Hamas’s inhuman attacks, even as so many haters around the world hypocritically blamed us for Hamas’s behavior. But who we will be as Israelis when the dust of this war settles is the crucial question of this year’s Independence Day.

For there is an insidious voice on the rise that incites Israelis against taking part in the Western world, an isolationist streak pushing Israelis against the larger project of liberal democracy and human rights, that threatens to impel the country to turn its back on our closest allies, leaving us to fight with our last breath – alone. It would leave Israel in coalition with only American religious fundamentalists and authoritarians, not with liberal American Jews. It promotes a false Zionism that espouses Kahanism and racism, which brands Israeli leftists as traitors and seeks to rescind civil rights from Israeli Arabs. A voice that is unremorseful when seeing the results of Israel’s attacks on uninvolved residents in Gaza. We know these voices, their supporters are our cousins and neighbors, and we have watched in horror as their politicians have been invited into power by a weakened Israeli prime minister. If we don’t beat these forces from our midst ideologically and politically, if we aren’t able to shift the thinking of our own fellow citizens, I doubt Israel will be a place where we can live. But how will we know the moment has arrived?

In bed one night, after we dug a particularly deep pit of despair (the news did most of the work), a clear red line emerged: If Itamar Ben Gvir, the Kahanist race-baiting minister, ever becomes Minister of Defense, we will leave. We will not let our four daughters serve in an IDF under his rule. But if Trump wins, would we move to America? It doesn’t seem any better there for democracy or for Jews. Since that night I’ve been playing this dark mind game when I can’t fall asleep most nights: When is it time to go? If Israel builds settlements on the outskirts of Khan Younis again? If the police turn a blind eye as protestors burn Gaza aid trucks? If the Israeli government no longer cares that its scientists cannot take part in international research grants with their colleagues?

And I probably should not be writing this. Speaking of leaving is taboo. Especially in English, where these thoughts will be misconstrued and misused by readers in the hear-no-evil pro-Israel camp, or the “settler colonialist” anti-Israel encampment. But mostly because so much of “the worst” has already happened, and because it seems we are at the clinching moment, in which the worst-case scenarios could come true. And that makes it really hard to write. And it scares me more than Iranian missiles and Hamas militants. Because if it’s the actions of Israelis that compel me to leave Israel, then my life’s project has failed. If we decide to leave because of what the Israeli government has become and done, then it is the destruction of “Bayit Shlishi,” the Third Jewish Commonwealth, at least for us. And we would be the lucky ones: we have dual citizenship. We have where to go and a nice American accent and social security numbers to boot. But we would never be home again.

These words are mostly hard to write because I do believe in Israel so much. I felt proud when my first-grader stood solemnly during the moment of silence at Sunday night’s memorial siren. A decade ago, that would have seemed to me to be disturbed parenting; today, I know it is a healthy education for a girl growing up in the Middle East, belonging to a nation and a story. And I’m super proud my 17-year-old will be joining the army in a year, after which, hopefully, over the next decade, we will have at least one daughter in uniform at any given time. And I write hopefully because that would mean that Israel is a place I can continue to believe in, an army I continue to support (not an army that doesn’t make mistakes — there is no such thing). It would be a country that is led by a responsible and moral military and political leadership, that seeks to be part of the larger, freedom-seeking world.

So on this Independence Day, the most loyal thing I can do for the State of Israel is admit that there is a red line that, if crossed, would make living here no longer living in Israel. It would have become a different country. And I intend to dedicate my powers in the coming year to making sure we go in the opposite direction: to convincing my cousins and neighbors not to go down the dark isolationist path, to fighting culturally and politically for an Israel that believes in freedom and collaboration as a path to peace, to convincing others, despite all the violence and the hatred, that dignity for Palestinians will lead to dignity for Israelis.

Last night, I led my community in prayer, singing Hallel for the miracle that is the State of Israel. When the shofar blasted at the end of it, I was transplanted back to the shofar of Yom Kippur, a moment before this war broke out. I heard the sound as a call for teshuvah, repentance, and a sound of tikvah, hope. To myself, to my community, to our country. To fight harder – harder against our enemies from without, and harder for our country from within, so that in the dark moments to come, when I fear we might have to leave, I will double down on what needs to be done in order to stay.

For a response to the above position, please read Avidan Freedman’s post, Dear Mish: They can’t make us give up on our home.

About the Author
Rabbi Mishael Zion, an educator and community entrepreneur, is a founder of Kehillat Klausner, a partnership minyan in Talpiot, where he lives with his wife and four daughters. A faculty member of the Mandel Leadership Institute, Mishael was the founding director of the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture, where he currently serves as a faculty member. Mishael is the author of Esther: A New Israeli Commentary (2019) and is the co-author of Halaila Hazeh: An Israeli Haggadah (2004) and A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (2007), together with his father, Noam Zion.
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