Opinion

Am I Too Dangerous to Enter Israel?

If supporting a non-violent boycott of the settlements makes me an enemy of the Israeli state, so be it. But Israel's border officers will have to hear my story before they turn me away for good.

A soldier guards a Purim celebration in Hebron.
A soldier guards a Purim celebration in Hebron. Gil Cohen-Magen

Okay,  yes, I’ve written critical articles and signed Open Letters protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and decrying the settlement enterprise; and yes, I’ve been a member of Americans for Peace Now for more than 30 years and a supporter of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, ACRI, and the New Israel Fund, among other “suspect” organizations. So it’s a safe bet that, under the new Israeli entry ban, I’m going to end up on the government’s blacklist. 
    
But if they’re going to ban me, I think they ought to know a few other facts about the American Jewish woman they’ve judged too dangerous to step foot beyond the security gate at Ben Gurion airport. To wit: 

•    My paternal grandparents made aliyah in the 1930s and both are buried in Tiberias, my grandfather the victim of an Arab raid, my grandmother the casualty of her traumatic loss.

•    I grew up in Queens, N.Y., with parents who were fierce Zionist activists and fundraisers for the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish Palestine) in the 1940s and '50s. My father served as president of the regional Zionist Organization of America, my mother as president of the local chapter of Hadassah.
 
•     A disproportionate amount of my parents’ free time and disposable income went to support the Zionist dream.  My father’s life, in particular, often felt like one long meeting with one agenda: Help make Israel a reality.

•    On May 14, 1948, a month before my ninth birthday, my family and our synagogue friends literally danced in the streets to celebrate Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That’s not something a kid forgets.

•    A year later, we took to the streets again to rejoice over Israel becoming member state of the United Nations.  For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me a rushed-into-production set of 33-1/3 RPM LP records on which was captured the General Assembly’s country-by-country voice vote (33 yes, 13 no, 10 abstentions).

•    Throughout my childhood, the blue and white Jewish National Fund tzedakah box sat front and center on our kitchen counter. I fed it with coins from my allowance and later my babysitting jobs, and when full, delivered it to my Hebrew school.

•    A small forest of trees was planted in my name on my birthdays and in honor of my bat mitzvah in 1952. (I was one of the first girls in Conservative Judaism permitted that ceremony.)

•    I took my first trip to Israel on the government’s dime and at Yitzhak Rabin’s invitation. It was 1976 and a small group of American women, myself among them, had organized a petition campaign opposing the UN resolution equating Zionism and racism. (The resolution had been passed in Mexico City when some member states hijacked the 1975 International Women’s Conference for their own geopolitical purposes.) Our free trip was the Israeli government’s way of thanking us for our efforts. On that visit, I fell in love with the country, warts and all, and wanted to share what I’d seen and felt.

•    As a founding editor of Ms. magazine, I was in a position to organize “The Ms. Tour of Israel” in March 1978. I ran an ad in the magazine and 52 women and four men signed up. I arranged for us to visit the major historical sites but also to meet with female MKs, feminist groups, women’s rights and civil liberties lawyers, Orthodox women, Palestinian women, kibbutzniks, health care experts, educators, army officers, and more. We heard Israeli women complain about male supremacy in everyday life, the unacknowledged problem of domestic violence, sex discrimination in the workplace and academia. We noticed that most Jews seemed blind to the plight of the country’s Arab population. We learned that Israel wasn’t a perfect society but ended up feeling connected to the nation and its fate because of the people we’d met who were working to make it better.

•    In the last 40 years, I’ve been back to Israel more than two dozen times. I have scores of friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and cousins who live on a moshav. I see them for meals and walks. I go to synagogue with them on Shabbat. I contribute to the Israeli economy by staying in nice hotels, eating lots of falafel and buying Judaica. 

But since joining Americans for Peace Now and participating in its deeply substantive study tours, I’ve also been privy to how other people live. I’ve seen Palestinian-Israeli villages, refugee camps, and Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns in the West Bank. 

I wish other travelers could be exposed to that same West Bank itinerary and see the double standard of justice in action, military and settler violence, the economic inequities, checkpoint humiliations and other degraded realities of Palestinians life under occupation that most tourists never see or care to hear about. 
 
I can’t unsee what I’ve seen or ignore what I know. The violation of another people by the Jewish State in the name of the Jewish people has pricked my conscience and inspired my activism over these last four decades. It makes me mourn for the principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence whose words, now moribund, once sent us out in the streets dancing for joy. More recently, despairing at the lack of progress toward peace and the growing erosions of Israeli democracy, it led me to support a settlement boycott as the only nonviolent means of bringing attention to this betrayal of my parents’ lifelong dedication to the Zionist enterprise.  

If that makes me an enemy of the state, so be it. But like many other Jews outraged by this new ban, I will return because Israel’s founders guaranteed me refuge and my parents taught me that Israel was my second home. The border officers will have to look me in the eyes and hear my story before they turn me away for good.  

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, is a founder of Ms. magazine, the author of eleven books, and a past Chair of Americans for Peace Now.