A couple months ago I was sitting in the dining hall of an army base near Ashkelon. The food… could be better… but the conversation is above average for military lunch time. I’m a “simple soldier” (a soldier without an advanced rank, still in their mandatory service) sitting with a group of military reserves. The IDF summoned these ex-officers, now-normal civilians with full-time jobs, spouses, kids, a range of years my senior to attend this three-day course I’m also attending. The topic at lunch is: politics (a topic illegal to discuss in the army but… shocker… often discussed in the army). I’m sitting with them because I like them. As someone old for a simple soldier, I appreciate the company of seasoned adults interested in discussing the nuanced repercussions of the young country’s decisions. It’s refreshing compared to the usual 18-year-old banter I’m surrounded with, a zeitgeist defined by viral TikTok trends.
All but one of them, a kippah-donning young man, the one closest to my age, are against the judicial reform. Everyone is arguing and I take the role of observer. I have my clearly anti-reform stance but I am so happy to see real grown Israelis discussing the topic intellectually (I do not see this often), relieved to meet Israelis sharing the same political opinion as me (also a rare sight on my usual base), generally amused by the discussion, plus most of them are way older, so I’m happy to be a listener and let them do the big-kid talking they’re excited about. It’s like watching Israeli news when politics comes up and everyone starts screaming at each other on live TV. It’s chaotic and funny because that wouldn’t normally happen on polite American news channels, but also cool because it’s somehow the norm here, and it’s real, and honest.
But quickly the conversation changes tone and I am no longer happy to be in their company. They’ve started discussing their escape plans for if and when this judicial reform goes through. One newly-married woman shares that her husband has a European passport and that they can move somewhere there. Someone else says their partner has the same “lifeboat.” Others discuss the United States as a backup plan “but that place is a mess too.” People are jealous of the European-passport owners and they’re jealous of my American citizenship, but I don’t want them to be. And I don’t want them to leave. I’m taking it personally.
“You’re kidding, right?” I wanna scream at them, immediately feeling alarmed by their genuine threats to abandon ship. I think I could probably be the last person in this country, it could be aflame, and I’d still be holding on tight to the dusty earth here. I know I’m rare in my ideological intensity, but I still find myself slightly surprised when other people express way less of it.
These people are awesome, educated, cream-of-the-crop Israelis that have contributed years of their life to the IDF, work in great jobs, are leading full lives in Israel with (currently… but who knows?) plans to die here, surrounded by their grandchildren. They sing HaTikvah at ceremonies, they party on the streets on Independence day, they cry on Memorial day. They are descendants of families who have escaped dozens of different countries and finally are living free in their homeland, yet- so scary is the idea of not living free- that they’re writing up a Plan B, C, and D. These are native-born Israelis, the people at the weekly Saturday-night protests against the judicial overhaul- and I am having trouble grasping the fact that they’re being serious. The ‘enemy’ that would be driving them out wouldn’t be the Palestinian culprits of shootings, car rammings, stabbings, or rocket attacks- but their own people. Our government. Imagining myself alone here, in the middle of a bleak, sad Tel Aviv that doesn’t feel like home anymore because everyone I love has packed up and left me, I’m feeling abandoned.
“Zionism is through thick and thin! Aren’t we all gonna stay and fight this? Together?” I’m panicking at the idea of being left to hold down the fort, keep alive the ‘light unto the nations’ vision of Zionism that right now feels like is only being kept alive in me, by me.
I fell in love with Zionism in college for many reasons, but one reason is that I saw Zionism as the unification of an ideal with reality, the unification of a people with a land they dreamed of returning to. A people with their home- a people with their peoplehood. The 20th century finally brought Am Israel and Israel back together and lucky me to be alive at the same time as the existence of this historical feat: the modern State of Israel. Unlike my ancestors, I came into this world a Jew with a choice between Diaspora and home, and I chose home when I made Aliyah. Now I’m living in Israel, and incredibly happy to, but I’m watching an Israel at war with itself.
That was in April, and the situation has become more dire. When Netanyahu suspended the reform from passing as a legislative package in March, the new goal of the coalition became passing it slowly through smaller bills. On Tuesday July 11, the first draft of the “reasonableness” bill, a bill blocking judicial review on politicians’ decisions,’ passed by a vote of 64 to 56, unleashing reenergized protests (that had never stopped, and were taking place inside and outside of the Knesset building while the bill was voted on) throughout Israel. While the bill requires additional readings before becoming law, the coalition, in a time crunch, is aiming to fully complete this process before the Knesset breaks for summer on July 30.
It’s unequivocally scary to see the threat to the fundamentals of democracy in Israel but it’s also scary to see the splits in my vision of unity for this country. It’s not just the people in the dining hall with me months ago. It’s a huge mass of the Israeli population- doctors on strike in hospitals and hundreds of Air Force pilots boycotting reserve duty are just examples.
I feel caught between my old-school Zionist ideology- a fierce unconditional love for, and awe in, Israel- and the feeling that what’s going on is, in simple terms, really bad. The situation’s intensity is making me feel like Israel, as we know her, is gone, but I also feel calmed by this belief that things are gonna work out, simply because there’s no other way.
Am I naive? My head stuck in the classic Israel narrative? I just can’t let myself believe that the Israel I know and love, the thing in the world I care most about, could disappear overnight. Maybe this country is taking a detour on its way to where it needs to go. I don’t know how to feel but I know this isn’t the first time Israel has been at a standstill, at war, with itself or from an external threat, at a turning point more tumultuous, and the country has gotten through it. People have threatened leaving, and people have left, and this country’s heart keeps thumping. Regardless of this situation, a state for the Jews has to exist.
I know I’m uncomfortable by the idea of people putting their hands up in surrender and invigorated by people protesting on the streets because- what could be a more beautiful demonstration of love? It’s loyalty that inspires positive change. It’s unconditional support while demanding better. We can’t run when things get hard. Finding comfort in history, it’s my responsibility to stay.