Flying Home from Home (Part 1)

Banksy eddiedangerous flickrLike 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.

The Army

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.

Banksy BethlehemIt 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 Culture

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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Images: Top: unaltered photo by eddiedangerous on Flickr, CC license, of a dove by Banksy, on a wall in Bethlehem at a place where over 40 people were killed during the first Intifada.
Below: unaltered photo by young shanahan on
Flickr, CC license, of another Banksy work in Bethlehem.

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6 thoughts on “Flying Home from Home (Part 1)

  1. Verene Nicolas

    This phrase particularly moved me: “Nowadays, when I see a soldier in the street, it is a painful experience, on behalf of everyone, including that person.” I’ll connect with my sadness when I meet a soldier in the street next. Thanks for depicting so vividly the paradoxes inherent to our humanity.

    Reply
  2. John Backman

    Miki, I wish I could read an article like this about every country in the world. I am always struck, when hearing headlines (or even in-depth reporting) from an unfamiliar land, by how utterly little I truly know about what happens there. Stories like this go a long way in helping me understand.

    Your comment about not feeling at home struck a chord with me. Even though I’ve lived in the same country (the US) my entire life, it does not feel like a spiritual home. I feel much more at home in several countries I’ve visited, South Africa being the foremost: I’d move there in a heartbeat if I thought I could. And yet I can’t escape a sense of calling to remain here–I know the problems here, and the strengths, and the dynamics, and so here is where I can best speak to the issues at hand. Just sharing my experience with this sense of not-at-homeness.

    Reply
  3. TJ

    This article is so eye opening. I have often wondered about Israel from inside out and this addressed so many of the questions I didn’t know I had. Thank you. T

    Reply
  4. Rich Forer

    Guilt-ridden Jews and Israelis admitting to some of Israel’s abominations and then rationalizing or defending the people responsible for those abominations is not a path to peace. Miki is obviously a decent person but she is still blinded by her attachment to Israel. What is the point of her article? Is it in fact an attempt to absolve herself of guilt? Is she trying to defend Israel from criticism? I know that a small minority of critics would like to do to Israelis what Israelis do to Palestinians but what is her point? Is she trying to say that Israel is being unfairly criticized? Whatever her point it is miniscule in relation to the reason that induced her to write the article, which is Israel’s cruelty toward Palestinians and its refusal to treat them like human beings and make peace.
    She knows most Israelis are ignorant of what is happening every day to Palestinians. Most don’t know that the separation wall is about triple the length of the 1967 border, for the purpose of gobbling up huge amounts of Palestinian territory, stealing it from Palestinians for the sole material benefit of the Jewish people – to annex more land for Jews at the expense of Palestinians. Israelis are as ignorant as Americans. Ignorance is the mind’s way of pretending it is not guilty of inhumanity.
    So what if she loves or appreciates her people. That doesn’t minimize the fact that over ninety percent of Israeli Jews supported last summer’s slaughter of Gaza, where civilians were, as usual, deliberately targeted, over 500 children killed, part of a total of over 2,200 dead people, 70% civilians.
    Israel did not have to invade Gaza. It wanted to in order to break up the unity government that would have made Hamas irrelevant and Fatah (Abbas, a collaborator with Israel) in charge of almost everything. And it used the death of the three teenagers as the pretext for the slaughter. The excuses it gave for invading were premeditated lies.
    Israel has elected a second government in a row that is at least as bad if not worse than the most hate-mongering state governments in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bull Connor, Wallace, Faubus have nothing on Netanyahu and almost his entire cabinet, not to mention Knesset. How did those racists come into office if not by the vote of Israeli Jews?
    Miki can talk all she wants about how diverse Israel is. What does that have to do with the actions of its government, supported by those people? Very few countries are monolithic anyway. So does she want to be congratulated because her country has a small minority of Jewish citizens who are not bigots? Should we be congratulated every time we go to a supermarket and walk out without stealing something? What she calls the “ambiguity and complexity of the Israeli experience” is a euphemism for the ignorance and utter lack of concern for and objectification of Palestinians that is the hallmark of Israeli society. In its ignorance and lack of humanity, the Israeli public has not only dispossessed, condemned millions of Palestinians to poverty and murdered them, it has perverted U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and is a primary factor in the rise of Islamic extremism. And Jewish extremism is in many ways a mirror image of Islamic extremism. Jews burning young Palestinians alive, targeting, shooting and bombing children and other civilians, daily and routine torture of Palestinians, imprisonment without charge, no legal due process, soldiers accompanying fanatical ISIS-like settlers into Palestinian villages to protect the settlers as they brutally attack civilians and deface their mosques, poison their wells, kill their animals and cut down their olive trees; Israel’s foreign minister calling for critics of Israeli policy to be beheaded. Its new justice minister calling all Palestinians “enemy combatants and their blood shall be on all their heads… This also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” Israel’s deputy defense minister asserting: “the Palestinians are animals, they are not human, they are not entitled to live;” its rabbis calling for the murders of infants and on and on.
    I know Miki does not approve of this insanity and is not as in denial as the average Israeli Jew, but her rationalizations show that she is still somewhat in denial and still attached to her indoctrination.
    She says the IDF is a “defense army.” That idea is part of her indoctrination. The army did defend the country from incursions by angry Arabs, most of whom had just cause for their anger. The army has occasionally defended against violent acts from people in hostile countries, but most violence targeted at Israel is a result of being baited by the Israeli army into provocative acts so that Israel could retaliate with force and blame the other. The overwhelming majority of acts of violence are committed by Israel as are the overwhelming majority of truces broken by Israel.
    The idea of “purity of arms” was pure propaganda meant to indoctrinate the citizens and Jews everywhere into the belief that the IDF only defends and never harms civilians. In 1948 most villages conquered by Israel were victims of gross massacres, including rape, murder of civilians, children etc. There are over 50 such examples in 1948 alone. Brutality, humiliation, torture and sadism have always been primary elements of the IDF treatment of Palestinians. Sneaking into villages in the middle of the night and planting bombs at the base of houses then blowing up the houses with people still sleeping was a common tactic.
    She mentions a moral dimension. There is no morality in stealing a people’s land, character assassinating the people as terrorists for resisting and then lying to the world about the true facts. Just because some soldiers did not kill indiscriminately doesn’t make the IDF a moral army, nor does it absolve the Jewish people of their complicity in the persecution of an entire people.
    Israel’s open press does not make less onerous Israel’s contempt for international law and non-Israeli Jewish life. Israel went into Nepal and Haiti. Does that make Israel innocent of its crimes against humanity? Everyone knows Israel hates “schvartzes.” Haiti and Nepal were public relations campaigns meant to divert attention from Israeli daily policy and con Israeli supporters into continuing to believe what a democratic and humane society Israel is.
    All of the things she mentions that cast Israel in a positive light are irrelevant. They do not lessen Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians or its war crimes and crimes against humanity. I’m glad she feels guilty; so now she should stop rationalizing.

    Reply
  5. Miki Kashtan

    Hi Rich,

    For years I have been studiously avoiding the conversation and the conflict, because I can’t bear to hear this kind of talk, whichever side levels it against whichever side. So it brings up helplessness in me.

    Just the other day someone read this same article and heard it in exactly the opposite way — that I am being anti-Israel.

    I am imagining that you are aching to see some evidence of a massive awakening on the part of Israeli Jews and other Jews, a willingness to truly look straight in the eye into what has happened and take some action to create change.

    I don’t know if I got the gist of your hope in writing this comment, I know that I am not seeing a way to engage with this given all else that is on my plate. There is one more piece that I already wrote and is likely to be posted tomorrow, Wed, May 20, which is likely to be even more challenging for you, because it deals directly with some of the questions about the days of the establishment of the state.

    My own biggest hope is that all of us, collectively, can begin to see complexity and humanity everywhere. There are no pure “victims” anywhere in this conflict. There are deeply traumatized people on all sides of this. From extremists to middle of the road, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have had massive amounts of trauma that are affecting their capacity to engage with themselves and each other in ways designed to bring reconciliation.

    It is my hope that any of us who recover from such trauma use our capacity to offer love and understanding to everyone as a basis for creating conditions for change to happen with recreating more of the same. This is what motivates me to even consider engaging with this topic.

    If you are interested in further engagement about this topic, I would urge you to attend one of the open discussion forums that I have created. I hope I would have the inner strength to stand firm by my commitment to meet you with an open heart despite how painful your comments have been for me. If not, I trust others on the call will step in to help.

    My only request of you is that you honor the culture of this blog, which is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement. If you choose to further comment in the same spirit as your original post, I hope that other readers of this blog will step in to expand on what I did in brief here: respond to you with an aim to understand you and what most matters to you. This is support that would allow me to focus my energy elsewhere.

    My primary aim in writing this response is for everyone else who reads. I am not considering what I am doing here to be a fully adequate response to you. I am just happy that I have found some way of responding that feels in integrity with my heart and with my capacity. I fully trust that your deepest desire is one I share: to find a way to bring truth to all that is happening, and to use that truth as a way to transform the situation. For me, in addition, I want to honor the humanity and dignity of all, and to move forward with awareness of the need to attend to trauma on all levels if there is any hope of a lasting peace that works for all.

    with care and hope,

    Miki

    Reply
  6. Miki Kashtan

    Someone usefully pointed out to me privately that in my response to Rich I may have come across as erasing the reality of power differences as it exists in the region. I regret that possible interpretation of what I am saying, and I see, indeed, words of mine that could easily be read that way. It is vitally important for me to very explicitly acknowledge that reality.

    In my efforts to aim to see everyone’s *humanity* I clearly didn’t stress that humans occupy different positions, with different potential to harm each other. There is no question in my mind that regardless of how Israeli Jews *feel*, in reality as I understand it Israel is a local superpower with extensive military might, backed up by the world’s largest military power, keeping under control and occupation a large Palestinian population that lives under constant threat of potential and actual mistreatment ranging from persistent humiliation to collective punishment and killings.

    One of the elements of the painful complexity that I see in the region is that it is also true that armed groups within the Palestinian population have reacted and continue to react to all that has happened since the 1880s by acts of violence that affect Israeli Jewish civilians and keeps them in fear. This reality troubles me deeply as a form of human reaction to oppression. I would deeply wish that Palestinians choose, instead, Gandhian methods for their resistance to occupation, and am glad to count among my friends some who do make that choice. I have a deep faith that such a choice would lead to massive changes in the region, in a way that nonviolent movements around the globe have. Just in case this is not clear: I am not in any way whatsoever advocating acceptance of the occupation; only that I believe a nonviolent resistance movement would be far more effective at ending the occupation and at creating conditions for the possibility of a serious enough dialogue that would allow all to find a peaceful solution.

    And, while this is not happening, and the reality continues to be what it is in terms of Palestinian responses, it is still clear to me that Israel is the party with power, and the actions are not equivalent – state power and violence on the one hand, and armed groups of people without political power or many means to attend to their needs on the other hand. Even looking at sheer numbers, as crude and painful as it is, shows that the state of Israel has killed many more Palestinians than Palestinian armed groups have killed Israeli Jews.

    It’s been a wrenching experience, over the years, to come to see this more and more clearly, to know that after all that’s happened to us Jews in 2000 years of persecution we could so easily turn around and pass it on to others. I don’t know what to do with this level of pain, and yet I bear it and keep looking at it because it feels absolutely necessary as a human being to do that. I would love for way many many more Israeli Jews to come to acknowledge this reality as a step in the awakening that I would like to see in Israel as part of moving towards any sustainable future in the region.

    This clarity doesn’t change the other part which is also true for me, which is that everyone is traumatized and that the path to a solution requires humanizing everyone, regardless of history and regardless of all of the above. I cannot imagine that a spontaneous awakening to the reality of Israel’s power would happen to Israeli Jews without a loving recognition of and working deeply with the historical trauma and the continued fear that are so formative of the Israeli experience. It took me years of living in another country to fully come to see all this; very few who live in Israel do.

    I want to also say that it is just about beyond my capacity to know how to talk about this in a way that honors everything that I am aware of, let alone being able to imagine and correct for all the ways that people might read into my words things I am not saying and not meaning. The line I am walking is tight beyond belief. I am challenged from all sides. The same person who responded privately before read a draft of this comment and felt my words could be read as if I am making an equivalence between Israeli violence and Palestinian violence when I was putting conscious effort to indicate my understanding of how different things are. In the end, I come to the sad conclusion that until and unless some modicum of human trust is restored – and I am not sure in this moment how I can do that with Rich in particular – my words will always be suspect.

    I keep coming back to this deep awareness of mine: only solutions that work for everyone have staying power. And I truly don’t know, can’t know, and don’t want to know or predict what such solutions will be — two states, one state, or no state. I trust only the transformative power of mutual understanding, full acknowledgment of everything, and shared commitment to a future to create them.

    I am glad for the opportunity to think about this even more deeply.

    Miki

    Reply

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