The real-world, political/military/cultural conflict between Israel and its neighbors is bad, and the war inside my head is getting worse. Israel and I are roughly the same age, and in my early Sunday-school years, I was inculcated with post-Holocaust grief and pro-Israel pride. Jews and Israel were the underdogs who, after centuries of persecution, got justice and a permanent place to live. Like others similarly educated, I felt solidarity with Israel and supported its clear need to defend itself against neighbors who vowed to wipe it off the face of the earth.
Solidarity with Israel has been an article of faith for American Jews during my lifetime. I never quite understood the confusing inner workings of Israeli parliamentary politics, but that didn’t matter to me, because I had been taught to see the very existence of the country itself as a moral victory. I didn’t look at Israel objectively, because I didn’t know how to, and I could justify to myself that I didn’t need to. I found myself drawn to Israeli music, dancing and language; I visited the country and cultivated Israeli friends along the way. Even when I moved away from religion, my cultural and emotional connection to Israel endured.
But that connection puts me in conflict with contemporary American liberal dogma. Others who share my liberal American politics have been much more openly critical of many of Israel’s internal and external policies. They call for an end to Israeli “apartheid” against Palestinians. They feel solidarity with Palestinians, call for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and are outraged that a nation born from persecution has become, itself, a persecutor. I see their point.
On the other hand, official Judaism—by which I mean Jewish congregations—has maintained a wall of solidarity with Israel. Jewish religious schools are still teaching the iconic “Israel-made-the-desert-bloom” curriculum. Criticism of Israel from the pulpit is rare, and when it occurs, it’s highly controversial. Before I quit religion, I had been there, too.
Along the religious spectrum, the more observant factions of official Judaism support—ostensibly on religious and historical grounds—the expansion of Israel into the ancient lands that they call Judea and Samaria. I can’t go that far. Those views strike me as religious fanaticism that’s not very different from the extreme, dogmatic ideologies of neighboring middle eastern religions. I wonder, sometimes, if the political power of Israel’s extreme religious right—clout that helps keep Benjamin Netanyahu in office—has helped push Israel into becoming more of a middle-eastern tribe and less of a European nation.
Geopolitically, I still maintain that Israel—like every nation—has the right to defend itself. However, I think it’s fairly obvious that a two-state solution is the only way out—even though—geez—how do you negotiate a two-state solution when one of the potential powers—in this case, Hamas– has vowed to destroy the other as soon as possible. It also concerns me that, while the abject poverty in Gaza is morally indefensible, you can’t help but notice that most Arab regimes have done virtually nothing to help create an economy there, preferring to keep the Palestinian issue hot, as a way of distracting their own populations from the failings of their own governments. Not to mention that, for many years, Palestinian school kids looked at maps of the middle east that didn’t even show Israel as a country. I’ve got as much of a problem with that as I have with the Israel-can-do-no-wrong propaganda I was fed as a child.
Some of my Israeli friends are peace-niks who have left Israel because it’s–understandably–very difficult to live and raise your kids in a permanent state of war. Others are adamantly pro anything Israel does to defend itself. Some—who have become U.S. citizens—are absolutely convinced that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Many base their vote for U.S. President on the single issue of who’s “best for Israel.” They won’t budge on these ideas, so when I see that conversation starting, I try to politely disagree and then move on.
It’s complicated, confusing–even Talmudic, to use a religious image. I see merits in some of the arguments on all sides and in between. My head hurts from fighting with itself over these things. And now it’s worse, because Benjamin Netanyahu has made it so.
His latest move—approving more settlements in the already contended West Bank—came just days after the U.S. stood up for Israel in the U.N. in opposition to a status upgrade for the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s decision is an arrogant, angry, in-your-face, move that further isolates Israel in world opinion. I know, I know, Israel has always been isolated, and it can argue that, if they’re going to hate you no matter what you do, you might as well do what you see as in your own interest. I get that argument, too. So, now, with all the other meshugas in my head, I have to try to separate my anger at a right-wing Israeli politician from my lifelong—and continuing—support for the existence and defense of the state of Israel.
I’m dancing as fast as I can. But I’m having trouble keeping pace with the back-and-forth rhythms in my brain.
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.