Between the Lines: Four writers wrestle with Israel in their lives

Between the Lines: Four writers wrestle with Israel in their lives

As ’67 War anniversary nears, authors measure the distance between the Jewish state and the diaspora

The New York Times’s Bret Stephens, at right, addresses the large audience at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The second panelist, Yossi Klein Halevi, author of several books, is on the left. Photo by David Thomas
The New York Times’s Bret Stephens, at right, addresses the large audience at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The second panelist, Yossi Klein Halevi, author of several books, is on the left. Photo by David Thomas

This past week I was fortunate to hear four gifted, articulate writers — two American and two North American-born who had made aliyah many years ago. They described how, through their work, they grapple with their relationship with Israel, and how the complexities of the Israel-diaspora relationship — a reality made more urgent as the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War nears —are reflected in their writing. 

Days later, I’m still thinking about their thoughtful discussions, which raise many questions, especially when it comes to the tangled emotions the anniversary evokes. 

Last Tuesday evening in Whippany, Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist on foreign affairs who just left the Wall Street Journal for the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, explained why, in 2002, at 28, he jumped at the chance to become editor of the Jerusalem Post; he was on a mission to counter what he saw as biased, anti-Israel reporting prevalent during the second intifada.

“I felt the Western press was getting the story wrong,” out of ill will or ignorance, he told an audience of more than 400 people at a forum co-sponsored by NJJN and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which hosted the evening.

Stephens, who now lives in New York City, was paired with Yossi Klein Halevi, the Brooklyn-born journalist and author (“Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation”) who has lived in Israel for 35 years and sees his role, in part, as a “translator” of the Israeli experience to American-Jewish audiences. “Like the biblical spies” (sent by Moses to scout out The Promised Land), American Jewry “needs its spies” to help them understand “this wonderful, strange land,” Klein Halevi said, adding: “I could have been one of my readers.”

Two nights later, at Central Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side, two longtime friends, novelist Nicole Krauss (“The History Of Love”), who lives in Brooklyn but has been a frequent visitor to Israel, and Matti Friedman, a reporter and author (“The Aleppo Codex”) who left his native Toronto for Israel at 17 and served in the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon, interviewed each other on how they interpret Israel, one through fiction and the other through journalism.

During the forum, sponsored by NJJN’s parent organization, The New York Jewish Week, Krauss read passages from her new novel, “Forest Dark,” due out in September, about two characters, “open to transformation,” who, like her, she said, “are stuck between two places” and are “awakened” by the “energy” of Israel. She said that while she has never lived in Israel, she has always felt that “so much of my true self” is there. She described the Jewish state as a place of “soulfulness” and “meaning.” 

Friedman read from and discussed his latest book, “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story.” It’s a war memoir that chronicles Israel’s, and his own, military engagement in Lebanon. “Pumpkin” was the name of the outpost where Friedman served; “flowers” was the IDF code word for “wounded.” 

The power of the book is its restrained, straightforward style, chronicling the last few years of Israel’s almost-two-decade military presence in Lebanon, which began with an incursion against the PLO in 1982 and ended, unresolved, in hasty retreat in 2000. Friedman explained that he and his fellow IDF soldiers were not ideologues; they were young men (teenagers, really) doing their jobs, what their country expected of them. They did not dwell on the moral complexities of combat. In hindsight, it was a sober, post-heroic time for the IDF, foreshadowing how wars are now fought: not on battlefields by opposing armies but often against an unseen enemy that employs suicide tactics and roadside bombs, and uses civilians as buffers for protection.

Followed soon after by the deadly second intifada, the Lebanon experience helped puncture Israelis’ Oslo optimism, driving home the reality that the conflict was not about to end anytime soon.

When Kraus asked Friedman what he thinks about his young son going into the army a decade from now, he replied: “Like most Israeli parents, I don’t.” He added that while raising children in the volatile Mideast is “a steep price to pay” for being part of the first Jewish state in Israel since ancient times, “it’s worth it.”

On some level, consciously or not, Israelis must always be evaluating whether it’s worth it. And diaspora Jews, or at least those who see Jerusalem’s fate as tied to their own, often are evaluating their relationship with the government, the land, the people.

This is a unique moment to consider the impact of Israel on our lives. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British document that concretized the dream of a modern-day Jewish state. And we are about to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, celebrated by much of world Jewry as a stunning, if not miraculous, military victory by a bold Israeli army vastly outnumbered by the forces of three Arab states committed to driving the Jews into the sea. As Yossi Klein Halevi, who was a 14-year-old in Brooklyn at the time recalled, it encompassed “an emotional trajectory that began with fear,” followed by “relief and then euphoria.”

That summer of 1967, Klein Halevi accompanied his father, a Holocaust survivor, to Israel. Inspired by Israel’s victory, his father was traveling there to visit two brothers who had settled in Israel after the Holocaust and whom he had not seen since. “I fell in love with Israel at its most glorious moment,” Klein Halevi said. “We thought, ‘We won, it’s over.’ But it’s not.”

In victory, Israel tripled the size of its country in less than a week. But it had also inherited the responsibility to oversee expanses of land with a large and bitter Arab population, a reality few dwelled on in those heady days but which has clouded the Jewish state’s vision of itself ever since.

“We aren’t occupying land,” Klein Halevi said the other night. “But we are occupying a people.” 

Bret Stephens emphasized the need to “change the conversation” and point out that “the real problem is not what happened in 1967,” as a result of the war, “but in 1948,” with the Arab world’s refusal to accept a Jewish state in the region.

And so it goes. There are no easy answers to Israel’s dilemma as it continues to struggle to be both a Jewish state and a democracy. But the four writers — Klein Halevi, Stephens, Krauss, and Friedman — each in their own way, continue to grapple with that reality, bringing their unique experiences and talents to bear on the Jewish condition today. 

That was the takeaway for me. It’s not our responsibility to come up with “the answer,” but it’s crucial that each of us reflect on the hard questions and engage in the conversation.

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