Israelis will be casting their ballots in this year’s national parliamentary election tomorrow. and I still have not determined whom to vote for.
I was born, raised, and educated in the US, in a Jewish household and strong Jewish community, consisting of school, synagogue, and summer camp. I can still see the synagogue bimah, or podium, in my mind’s eye, with the Torah ark and eternal light at center, flanked by the American flag to the left, and blue-and-white flag of Israel to the right -- twin pillars of a proud and deeply-felt identity.
As American Jews, we were a confident and respected minority. I was raised to feel that the weight of American values and traditions were firmly on our side, both in our everyday, substantially-privileged lives, as well as in our political actions, whether we were fighting anti-semitism, calling for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, or keeping vigilant guard against the encroachment of religion into matters of state. We supported civil and political rights for all as a matter of right and wrong, and not merely because to do so was in our interest as members of a minority group. As Jews, we were compelled by moral and religious imperative to lend our voices, as Rabbi Heschel famously had, to America’s Dream. We were Jews, and our values were universal values.
We loved Israel. We were raised on the fairy tale ending to the millennia-old story of ruthless persecution and horrific suffering. Israel was tiny and under threat, and needed our support. Every Friday at school, we dutifully plunked our quarters and dimes into the blue-and-white JNF “tzedakah” boxes, giving to Israel as a form of charity, to lend our hands to those in need.
A democracy in a sea of dictatorships, surrounded on all sides by enemies who wished our destruction, our Israel was David to the relentless Goliaths. If America is a melting pot, we were taught, Israel is a felafel sandwich: one big pita with a coming-together of peoples mixing -- deliciously, of course -- each maintaining their separate identity but combining perfectly into a whole. We dutifully ate our falafel and waved our flags, sang Hatikvah in our American-accented Hebrew, and pledged that one day, at least we’d come to visit.
In 1999, I became an Israeli. I was motivated not by ideology, but by love: Twenty years ago this summer, I met an Israeli guy, as fine and humble a human being are you’re ever likely to meet. As improbable as our coupling may have been, I decided from the start that if I wanted my life to be a love story, I’d have to live it as one.
So I moved to Israel, and took advantage of the laws that made it a simple clerical matter for me, a non-citizen Jew, to sign three times on the dotted line and become a citizen of the state of Israel.
I have lived here in Israel most of my adult life. I speak fluent Hebrew, own a home, and my own company. My husband has a business of his own. We have a tight circle of friends, most of whom we have known for the better part of our twenty years together. We have fine neighbors and are lucky to live in a lovely, safe, comfortable middle-class community. It’s very nice here, and my children are thriving.
As Jewish citizens of Israel, my children are part of a strong and powerful majority. They go to public school and soccer practice and scouts and dance lessons. Wherever they go, they encounter only Jews: All of their friends and classmates are Jewish.
I look at them and wonder, what is the Israeli Dream on which they are being raised? Are their values universal values, too?
I ask myself: What vote does one cast in a love story?
I first heard the word “Palestinian” in 1987, when I was thirteen. I was in Mr Rodman’s Hebrew class. The first Intifadeh had just broken out, and we were baffled. Who were these people throwing stones? Our teacher tried to explain what we were seeing in the news, and understanding gave way to astonishment. There were refugee camps in Israel? Who lived there? Why hadn’t anybody told us this before? But why were they fighting us? Why were they throwing stones? Didn’t they know the soldiers would have to shoot back?
We knew, of course, that there were Arabs in Israel. We had seen them on postcards and posters, kaffiyeh-clad, weather-beaten mustachioed men, tending their camels, looking away from the camera and off into the distance. We had seen the pictures alongside the other postcard images, of the Western Wall and wildflowers and Tel Aviv beaches. They were part of the great falafel, we were told. We marvelled at how exotic Israel was, and felt more exotic for our connection to the Israel they inhabited
But these stone-throwers? Wrapped in their kaffiyehs, hurling stones at our brothers and sisters -- they wanted to throw us into the sea, did they not? They did not belong on a postcard. Their story was emphatically not ours.
Earlier in elementary school, I remember seeing a map of pre-’67 Israel and wondering why it was drawn so funny, skinny where it should be fat. It seemed alien, contrived, and too-delicate: like you could easily break it in half. The map we normally used was the post-’67 map, with the shape of Israel drawn from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea. That was our Israel: whole, comfortable, self-assured. Looking at the older maps, the idea that those were Israel’s borders for its first twenty years seemed preposterous.
I wondered about the Arabs. Why do they persist in fighting us? Don’t they know we have already won?
Not long after my husband and I moved to Modiin, about eight years ago, I spent a night on the computer, curious to learn about the history of the land I now called my home. Modiin was a new city, a planned city, the cornerstone laid in 1993, with the first apartments completed just a few years later. But by 2006, with many “peace processes” and wars and too much understanding of the recent past and complicated present already under my belt, I knew that the land’s history could not have begun in 1993. I wondered, what had been here before? Was my new home built on the ruins of some family’s home, or village?
I didn’t find much, not about these rolling hills and shallow valleys. But I learned much about the cities nearby, about Ramle and Lod, and about the Palestinian exodus from those cities in 1948. Some I already knew. But even knowing, I never fully realized. I never really knew before that moment.
The forced marches and evacuations. On foot or with small carts or wagons, stripped of their valuables at gunpoint, taking only what they could carry, six or seven kilometers in the brutal, deadly July heat. People died of exposure, exhaustion, and thirst.
There was rape. And murder. And looting. And coldly calculated military objectives.
I had not been taught any of this in school.
I have been writing this post in my head for weeks. I have wanted to tell you that I don’t have the answers, but I can only support the most robust possible expression of political and civil rights for every human being inhabiting any of Israel’s mapped-out spaces. I have wanted to lament with you the collapse of Israel’s left, and tell you how it feels to see the legacy into which I was raised become a popular slur, “leftist” only a small step above “Arab” in the hierarchy of our enthno-nationalist culture’s popular put-downs. I have wanted to reclaim with you the Zionist mantle from those who insist on only its most nationalist, obstructionist, maximalist, and fundamentalist-religious expression.
The Zionism of my youth was different: It was a redemption movement. The liberation of the Jews was a particular expression of the universal values we held dear for all people. I've wanted my Zionism back, and my values with it.
But it doesn't matter, really. You can have your Zionism, if that's how you want it. To tell you the truth, I am far to greedy to limit myself to the Jews' national liberation movement. I am maximalist, too: Let us all be liberated. Let us all be redeemed.
I will not cast off the values and ideals that colored my Jewish-American childhood, even as I’ve lived most of my adult life in Israel. Why should I? My peers draw upon their Iraqi and Romanian and Polish family values, habits and mores gleaned from the larger culture their Jewish ancestors inhabited. Like so many generations of immigrants in so many places, I’ve taken much of the Old Country with me to my new home.
My children are proud of their American heritage, much as I took pride in the legacy I inherited as a Jew.
I look upon the Israeli political landscape through the lens of the American Dream. I wonder how it can be, in a democracy, that only some little boys and girls can grow up and dream of being Prime Minister, while others are explicitly told that they are not wanted here and do not belong -- as our Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, crassly urged Joint List leader Ayman Oudeh to do during a nationally-televised debate among parliamentary candidates.
Perhaps I recoil at the deep and abiding racism that permeates every aspect of Israeli society because of my uniquely American sensibilities. I’ve considered voting for the Joint List in solidarity with the historic uniting of Israel’s Arab parties -- even when particular politics of some of the list’s representatives are an anathema to my own views and values. Because I was raised to believe in The Dream: that all people are created equal.
And I believe in the corollary to the Dream, as well -- namely, that separate is never equal, and that equality demands integration. As American Jews, we were fully integrated citizens who maintained and celebrated our Jewish identity. In today’s Israel, however, there is no true path for integration for our large Palestinian-Israeli minority. Israel is a bastion of Jewish privilege, and citizens Arabs are treated with outright discrimination, de jure or de facto, subject to deep cultural exclusion and prejudice. Arabs in Israel are second, third, fourth class citizens. Could a show of force from the Joint List make Israel’s Palestinian citizens heard? Could the well-spoken and likeable Ayman Odeh come to be the first non-Jew to head the parliamentary opposition, should a national-unity government come to pass?
For Arabs to integrate into Israeli society, for them to enjoy a more genuine expression of their rights as citizens, at the very least, Jews must see them with open eyes.
Then again, there is the “Zionist left” -- Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s “Zionist Camp,” the center-left Labor party list, and Meretz, the stalwart , now-marginal bastion of the Jewish left. Which has more pragmatic value, I suppose: a vote for the most-likely-to-succeed Zionist Camp, or a vote for the most-likely-to fail, now-marginal “Meretz” party? My views are more Meretz -- line for line, their policies match my own politics most closely -- and the polls show that they’re in danger of falling off of the political map.
Which vote is most likely to exert the most political will, I wonder. Which vote might actually succeed in moving the national needle -- just a smidge -- away from the hard-right turn it's taken in recent years?
The answer, of course, is “none of the above.” That ship has saild. I’m in a small minority of Israelis who desire a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian people. Most Israelis care more about the price of housing (which is important -- there is a real housing crisis here) than human or civil rights. The story of the Israeli left has ended, for now, however I cast my personal vote. The Jews of Israel do not recognize Palestinian rights and will resist any territorial concessions or military withdrawals from the lands captured in ‘67 with all their might. There is no moving the needle. Not by me. Not now.
On the right, my liberal views are disparaged as naive and self-hating. In the center, too, my politics are dismissed as impractical and radical or extreme. The subtext of the criticism is, “If you were more Israeli, you would understand. Your American sensitivities are well enough over there, where it is safe. But here, it is too dangerous to bother ourselves with such delicate matters as ‘rights.’”
Perhaps. Perhaps I am wrong, and it is well and good that I am in such a small minority. Perhaps the implementation of my favored policies would bring ruin upon all the Jews of Israel. Perhaps -- but I think not.
I will not cast off the Dream. I will continue to dream that every child in this country be safe, accepted, free. Let freedom ring, I say. From Ramle to Ramallah. From the Triangle to Tel Aviv.
Let freedom ring.
Here is what I would express with my vote, if only a vote could express such things:
I would vote my love for my family, my friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, my fellow human beings, created one and all in the shadow of the divine. I would vote my love for the weakest members of our society, the disenfranchised, the insecure. I would open my heart to the fears and hopes of all of the millions scrapping it out in this crazy country. I would cast a vote against violence and poverty, for hope and beauty. I would vote for all the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, for the lonely and forgotten, for the “transparent” and invisible members of our society. I would vote to lift us up, to keep us safe. I would vote for justice, for peace, for reconciliation. For love.
If I could do so with my vote, I would share, as a Jew and a citizen, my conviction that our core values are universal values, and my determination that those values promote and protect the rights of all people. In the words of Edmund Fleg -- whom I quoted in my high school yearbook -- “The promise of Israel is the universal promise… For Israel, the world is not yet completed; we are yet completing it.”
Who will complete the work, repair the world? Who will tell the story as a love story? -- For the story will never be better than our best telling.
Undecided, still, and dreaming my fantastical dreams: I will tell the love story, to my children, at least. I may not repair the world; but neither may I desist from the work -- however we vote tomorrow.