Like many people who live in voluntary or involuntary exile, I have no real home. Many years ago, while still living in Israel, I heard someone on TV offer a tip: if you feel like a stranger in your own country, he said, move to another one. Because then the feeling and the reality will be congruent. I have thought of this many times in the thirty two years of living in the US, where I have never felt at home despite my ability to write and teach in English; despite my deep connection to so many people and communities; and despite my continued preference and choice for living there. I also think of this tip when I visit Israel, where things are different. Being from Israel is part of me, though I never felt part of it. I feel utterly familiar and even continuous with so much there. I speak and love the language. I have friendships there that go all the way back to my childhood, where mutual understanding is still easier than with my US-based friends even though I have more in common with many of my US friends philosophically and in terms of life choices and experiences. At the same time, when in Israel I also feel alien, distant, and at odds with the culture. The years of living in the US have only intensified this feeling.
Flying home this time, I am awash in the anguish of leaving my sister Arnina behind, my one and only remaining sister after our loss of Inbal last September. For the entire month I was in Israel, we were clinging to each other. I rarely left her company to go be with my friends. Most of the time we were together, at home, working in parallel, eating food together, taking care of business as needed, and simply enjoying the illusion of having a home together. That this was in Israel was almost incidental, while at the same time I was acutely aware of being in this country of so much paradox and contradiction.
In the eyes of many people in the US, Israel is, primarily, a local superpower that is making the lives of Palestinians a grinding daily misery. Only a marginal minority of Israeli Jews have a similar awareness. The reality of separation between the lives of Israeli Jews and the lives of Arabs, both within Israel, and even more so in the West Bank, is so hermetic, that it’s entirely possible to go through life without any reason to think about the actual conditions of people. Life in Israel is its own peculiar pressure cooker that keeps everyone sufficiently preoccupied that anything not immediately in front of them remains entirely invisible.
I left Israel primarily because of the political situation. Being utterly naïve about the global geopolitical relationships, and the role of the US in the world, I didn’t want the continued treatment of Palestinians to be done in my name. Nowadays, outside the US, I would rather be seen as an Israeli than as an “American”. When asked why, my wry answer is: “I’d rather be a regional bully than a global bully.” (And if you wonder why “American” in quotes, it’s because the US is only a part of America, which is a continent, not a country, and I still remember the woman’s face in a class I took in the 1980s when she reacted to the term “all-American”.)
Despite this dis-identification with the policies of Israel towards Palestinians, I still don’t see Israel as a monolithic, negative entity. It is a country rich with paradox, even contradiction. I tend to believe that very few in the US understand the ambiguity and complexity of the Israeli experience and are quick to condemn, or glorify, without that understanding. In all the years of living in the US, I haven’t yet found a way to speak of my experience, of what it means to me to be from Israel, of the complexity of what I carry. Now, finally, I am finding the way.
Not that I myself pretend to know how to understand or describe what is happening in Israel. After all, I have been gone for thirty two years, with only short visits every once in a while. Still, I grew up there and lived there until I was 27, and I maintain connection with people, see things, and hear stories. Here, then, is my very personal and impressionistic attempt to describe the Israel I left a few hours ago.
Growing up in Israel, and especially before the occupation started in 1967, the sight of a soldier with arms on the street was mostly a positive association. “Our” army was seen as fundamentally different from other armies. It was a people’s army, in that everyone served. It was a defense army (or so we thought), and therefore committed to certain values that were categorized under the heading “purity of arms.” It meant that even during battle certain acts were beyond the pale, to the point of being required to disobey certain orders, those deemed “manifestly unlawful.” Even as late as 1974, when I was drafted, we had, as part of our training, ongoing discussions about this topic. Regardless of what people high up thought or wanted, in those days I trust that the overwhelming majority of individuals took pride in the notion that war could have a moral dimension to it, and that protection of civilians was important enough to even risk one’s life for it.
In the days before reaching a mature and clear rejection of war as a means for anything positive, before seeing the vast expanse of nonviolent responses that exist, these values formed the core of my own personal identity as well. It was from within those values that I and many others became critical of the occupation. The claim we made was that the very fact of holding so many people under military occupation and forcing Israeli rule on them would, by necessity, result in a moral erosion. It was seeing the inevitability of this erosion and its effects, both on the Palestinians and on the Israeli Jews, that led me, in the end, to leave. I no longer saw any way to support a country that led its people to war after war, and I was rapidly losing my faith that these wars were, indeed, acts of defense.
It was only after I was out of Israel for some years that I began to see the other perspective: that Israel is a local superpower; that having everyone go through the army makes Israel a militarized country; that the experience of being soldiers at such a young age must result in some numbing and acceptance of violence. Nowadays, when I see a soldier in the street, it’s a painful experience, on behalf of everyone, including that person.
Then again, here’s one more little known fact. The Israeli army has a radio station that’s been in operation since 1950. Whatever idea anyone might have about an “army” radio station, this particular one has been innovative in format, promoting cultural pluralism and a wide range of topics. The last thing that could be said about this station is that it promotes militarism. In fact, the station is frequently criticized as being leftist, since criticism of the army and the state are fairly routine in its contents.
The peculiar paradox about the army radio station is not an isolated phenomenon. Israel has an astoundingly open press and freedom of speech is impressive. For a country that has second class citizens within its borders and most certainly in the occupied territories, the amount of satire, critical political analysis, and overall dissent that are present in mainstream media is simply staggering. In other words: Israel manages to be two countries in one, with different operating principles. I grew up in one of them, not knowing about the other; proud to be from “the only democracy in the Middle East” without any clue how compromised that democracy is, what the cost to others was.
Israel is a small and dense country, getting denser by the year. Its population, not counting the occupied territories, grew more than sevenfold since its establishment in 1948 and is now over 8 million. No matter how small the cars, the Tel-Aviv Metropolitan area, which houses 44% of the Israeli population, is an ongoing traffic jam and parking nightmare, almost around the clock. Within this incessant activity, I find repeated pleasure, in one of the most crowded intersections in the city, to see my all-time favorite traffic sign which reads, literally: “Merge wisely into traffic after turning.”
Israel is also a place with a sophisticated and cheap network of public transportation that for decades has been boasting of reaching every place where Jews live (another example of the two-country problem). Along with transportation, certain basic foods are extraordinarily cheap. This is, perhaps, one of the last residues of the early years, of the commitment to provide ease in attending to basic physical needs, part and parcel of the mildly socialist orientation of the state in those early years. Despite the more recent trend in the direction of neoliberal economic policies, which has resulted in so much else being double or triple what it costs in the US even while salaries are smaller, I still get a sense that those in power maintain some essential commitment to the well-being of citizens and to making things function. (Again, this is only true for the Jewish citizens.)
This is a country with a loud and persistent street life. Windows and balconies are open, streaming live whatever happens inside people’s apartments. Since Israel began TV broadcasting in 1968, and while it had only one TV station, which was until 1986, the news broadcast could be heard in full simply by walking down any street. Today, the sounds are mixed, creating an ongoing cacophony of TV, radio, music, and family fights. Sitting in Arnina’s apartment, in a residential part of Ramat-Gan (a neighboring town to Tel-Aviv), I am aware of at least three families in the surrounding buildings. It’s not just muffled sounds. I could track, blow by blow, the high decibel contents of these fights (at least when they were in Hebrew, by far not the only language spoken in Israel any more).
It’s also a place that’s still relationship based. Although shopping malls exist, they don’t seem to take away from small local businesses. Even greengrocers are still around, familiar with their customers. Even during my own short month of being there, the storeowner around the corner would sort of know what I was generally getting, and ask me if I needed tomatoes today, for example, based on what he already knew of me. Most interactions in the local stores are friendly, neighborly, still resonating with some sense of community and togetherness.
Perhaps this is also the reason that, despite the intensity of commercialism which keeps growing year by year as I come to visit, Israel is one of the few or only places in the world where Starbucks didn’t manage to take root. After two years of trying, during which they ignored the advice they received about the strong local coffee shop culture and insisted that their model works everywhere and will work in Israel, too, they closed all their stores and left. This outcome is one of the few things that make me proud to be an Israeli.
Israel is a tiny country speaking a language that only a few million people speak as their primary language, not even the entire population given waves of immigration that continue. Yet, somehow, there is so much access to culture, in many instances more so than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Books are translated into Hebrew from all different parts of the world, some which do not get translated into English, even. And Tel-Aviv is home to one of several cinematheques in the country. The place is bustling with activity, every day showing high quality movies from everywhere which I cannot ever find in the Bay Area or on Netflix.
When I come to Israel, I am startled to see how little environmental awareness there is. I didn’t hear conversations about the planetary conditions at all while there. The level of stress from just getting through the day, getting from one place to another in the intensity of the street life, the jams, or the intensely unfriendly bureaucracy that isn’t even formally committed to customer service, leaves people with no energy for anything. And if there is anything, the realities of the local conflicts – with Palestinians; between religious and secular portions of the population; between the right and the left; between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi Jews – consume every remaining iota of presence. Even recycling is still in its infancy in Israel, and organic food is scarce, expensive, and not of great quality. And… Israel’s landscape is littered with solar water heaters, and has been for many decades, since before the establishment of the state, before awareness of energy use was common in the world.
The complexity and paradox don’t end here. What does is my sense of how much people want to take in all at once. The rest – my very personal experience of and take on some of the wrenching issues surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel and its significance – in a few days, in a separate piece.
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