In this period of reflection at the dawning of the New Year, thoughts and feelings about Israel engross and preoccupy me. Over the past few months, Israel has become a source of heartache and sorrow for me. I carry the pain, anger, and shame triggered by its racist leaders in my heart and my consciousness, trying to ward off hopelessness as I follow the news. I did not expect the malicious extent of their policies and legislative initiatives, although I probably should have, since they have not been secretive about their intentions to move the country away from its liberal democratic roots.
Why does this matter so much to me?
Israel has been an important part of my Jewish commitments and identity since my teenage years. My first trip there was in 1965. At that time, I felt pride and admiration, cultivated in my home and my school, for the heroic, idealized narrative of the Jewish state, forged by young, hardy pioneers who created kibbutzim and new cities out of the arid desert and swampy marshlands. I felt emotionally connected to the Israel that provided a safe haven for Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from Arab lands and elsewhere, and I viewed it as a spiritual home for all Jews, wherever we lived. In those days, no one told the stories of the forced dispersion of resident Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence.
In the aftermath of Israel’s heady victory in the Six-Day War, during our summer visits in 1968 and 1969, my husband Steve and I, in our twenties and newly married, toured West Bank towns and villages, encountering other narratives for the first time. Neither Israelis nor Arabs believed then that the occupation would endure for decades. He was already engaged in conversations with leaders on both sides about how to craft a peaceful resolution of the conflict between two peoples with irreconcilable differences.
We lived in Jerusalem for two eventful years in the 1970s, marked by deadly terrorist incidents and also by President Sadat’s surprise arrival there to speak to the Israeli public from the Knesset, proclaiming “No more war!” Fast forward through the many years during which I have continued to feel connected to and a believer in Israel as a society that championed the values of justice, equality, and peace, enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.
I have also listened to and learned much about the conflicting realities on the ground. It’s been a process of many years for me, coming to terms with the growing chasm between these ideals and what I have come to understand as the complex and often troubling reality. I have begun to feel that the unstinting fealty proclaimed by most North American Jewish community organizations was to a large extent grounded in idealized, wishful, and romantic fantasies and a purposeful resolve to hide aspects of Israeli society, rather than engage with efforts to support change.
These days, I recoil from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s arrogant statements about Jewish entitlement and supremacy. I see his support for the unchecked growth of settlements and the vigilante violence of some settlers as an evisceration of any vision of a two-state solution. It’s the right-wing, extremist coalition that came into power last October that has stirred up the passionate feelings of grief, embarrassment, and anguish that I carry with me daily, as I read the news and opinion essays in the Times of Israel and Haaretz online, follow webinars that bemoan the demise of the Israel we have long loved, and correspond with Israeli friends and family who join the weekly Saturday evening protests.
I wish I could be on the streets with them, chanting “Democracy!” and waving the blue and white flag that represents the original vision of Jewish dreams and values that I hold dear. I wish I could sing with them of the hope still not lost.
Elaine Shizgal Cohen, EdD, of Teaneck is a retired Jewish educator. She is engaged in a variety of volunteer activities and occasionally writes an opinion piece for the Jewish Standard.