My generation of Jews in America was exemplified by Woody Allen – the iconic nerdy, neurotic, maximally verbal, physically wimpy, funny white American Jewish man — harmless and humorous from beginning to end, or so it seemed. Of course, if you’re up on your internet gabs about celebrities, you will know that Woody’s not all about humor. There’s the did-he or didn’t-he molest seven-year-old Dylan, daughter of Mia Farrow.
And there’s real discomfort among folks like me when it turned out he had been carrying on an affair with Mia’s daughter Soon-Yi, a discomfort only minimally reduced by the fact that Woody and Soon-Yi have been married now for 16 years.
If even Woody Allen has a dark side, why should the rest of us American Jews think we’re free of it?
We’re not. Our attachment to Israel has a dark side that many of us have successfully avoided for generations. I grew up in the heady days of early Israeli independence (I was born three months after Israel declared independence). I was raised on Holocaust remembrance and the notion of a righteous, safe and superbly socialist Israel, a place any Jew could go in case the Holocaust started happening in our own country. We learned Israeli songs and Israeli folk dances. We joined Habonim, the socialist-Zionist youth group, and went to its camp, Camp Moshava, where everyone worked and everything was done communally. If your parents sent you a package of cookies, it was held until there were enough cookies received from families that everyone could have a cookie (by which time they were all stale).
We sent dollars to plant trees in Israel. We watched movies about the idyllic kibbutzim in Israel where men and women had equal responsibilities and equal power and all work was shared equally. We hung posters of strong almost Aryan-looking Israeli youth, Sabras, a tanned boy and girl wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts as they stood alertly at guard protecting Jewish lands. We read the book and watched the movie Exodus, Paul Newman as the main character, about the creation of the State of Israel. That was our view of Israel – a bulwark protecting all Jews from genocide. A bastion of liberty, democracy and equality (and virtuous socialism).
My view of Israel developed cracks, but only very tiny ones, when I was in college and ran into the kind of Jew who was against any Palestinian homeland. That didn’t make sense to me – why did support of Israel mean being against Palestinians having their own state? But the cracks were smoothed over by tales of how the Palestinians were not a real people (not true) or how Jordan was already a Palestinian state (not true) or how Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestinian Authority, was totally corrupt (true) and a terrorist to boot (true). However, please note that as children we were taught to cheer for the terrorist activities that helped create Israeli independence.
But in 2007 my older daughter called me from college and asked me whether I was a Zionist. I answered without hesitation, “Yes, of course.” My daughter found that very disturbing because the word now sometimes connotes something quite different from what it meant when I was growing up. It’s now often associated with those people who want a “Greater Israel,” which means extending Israel’s boundaries to include the land west of the Jordan River in what is now the West Bank, land that is home to the Palestinians. Over the course of the next few years, after discussions with our daughter, after an eye-opening dinner with our Jordanian-American neighbors and friends, and after follow-up of these discussions with my own research, my view of Israel changed dramatically. There were still the appealingly socialist kibbutzim and kibbutzniks, but there was also The Occupation, the systematic and ugly oppression of Palestinians by Israel. There was the anti-Arab bigotry in Israel coupled with the extreme behavior of some of the extremely religious Jews in Israel. There were the racist riots in Tel Aviv. There was our older daughter’s experience in Israel and Palestine for a summer, of being tear-gassed during a peaceful demonstration by Palestinian and Israeli anti-Occupation activists, of her witnessing the results of the destruction of Palestinian homes and farms. And then a couple of weeks ago, Avner Gvaryahu, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) veteran and descendant of nine generations of Jews in Israel on one side and of a New York state citizen (now Israeli also) on the other, came to a local Reform Jewish temple and spoke about his experience as an IDF soldier in the West Bank. Avner was representing an organization called Breaking the Silence. They describe themselves as:
[A]n organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.
He spoke about military operations called “Straw Widows,” in which Israeli soldiers invade a Palestinian-owned house, herding all the people living in the house into a room and shutting them in there, then take over the house for whatever purpose the IDF chooses. In some cases, according to Gvaryahu, this was only for practice. But unlike simulations often used for practice by militaries, the people being shut into a room were real people, real inhabitants of the house, who were forced out of their beds and activities and imprisoned for however long the IDF soldiers chose to make it. People not accused of any infraction, people not suspected of any anti-Israeli activity, their only crime being that they were Palestinians living in a house that the IDF chose to invade.
This is the behavior of tyrants, the actions of people with uncontested power over others. Trying to reconcile his story (and the testimony of others in his organization) with the image of a righteous democratic Israel is an impossible task.
As I thought about Gvaryahu’s testimony, I reflected back on my childhood experiences and education about Israel. And suddenly I realized that the dark side was present even then, but it was hidden among the trees planted, the dancing and singing, the shared cookies and work. In the middle of the night in Camp Moshava, we were woken up and sent off to the dining hall for a special activity. We were taught how to sneak up on an Arab and kill him. If I remember it correctly, it was knee in the lower back, hands on the head and pull back sharply. A few years later I showed the maneuver to my sister’s Special Forces Vietnam-Vet boyfriend and he said “Yep, that would do it.”
So at age 12, in the middle of summer camp, in the middle of the night, we were trained to kill Arabs for Israel. And no one thought this was wrong or inappropriate or even odd. It was a dark but ignored element in my childhood that was a harbinger of the current violence we see in Israel and Palestine. Nerdy neurotic image or not, we American Jews need to own up to our dark side, to what a nation many of us feel an almost familial attachment, is doing. And we need to accept that Israel’s dark side is hurting its survival. The Occupation drains Israel’s resources, divides the country, and turns public opinion in the world and in the United States against Israel.
If we care about Israel, if we want social justice, if we believe in תיקון עולם (tikkun olam — repairing the world), we need to speak out, just as the IDF soldiers in Breaking the Silence are, against Israeli oppression and denial of Palestinians’ human rights.
Marti Teitelbaum lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the mother of two high-energy girls (a twenty-something future radical social worker and a finally full teen 13-year-old!) and is married to a psychiatrist who devotes half his work life to a child mental health clinic. For almost 20 years, Marti used her degree in public health to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, producing most of their numbers on children’s health, disability, health insurance, Medicaid, and immunization. She has always been a political junkie and a fiber-holic and now, for the first time in her life, has the time to indulge in both of these addictions. Politics and weaving have a lot in common: both take a lot of thought and preparation and both have a lot of complicated entanglements. But the difference is that weaving calms the soul and produces something useful and potentially beautiful. Politics doesn’t.
Image by Jolillian T. Zwerdling, 2011, with permission