My home/Not My Home: Not Giving Up on Israel

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Participants of a Taglit-Birthright trip.Credit: Taglit-Birthright

I arrived in Israel on July 1st for my usual summer trip here, a combination of work, vacation and time with my Israeli cousins and friends, a time to live my shadow-life. I say shadow-life because I wake each morning, whether in my home in Brooklyn or here in Israel feeling that each foot is in one place, but never both together—half of me in New York and half of me in Israel. It’s been like this since my first trip here over 30 years ago, just after college, where I found Israel to be the heart of my Jewishness, a country that breathed the spirit still of the socialist-Zionism that I had discovered in my teen years, a home for a wandering nation.

Back then, I first encountered Yitzhak Rabin in person. I was with a delegation sponsored by the now-defunct Mapam Party and a group from the Socialist International (SI) that was being hosted by the Labor Party and the Histadrut. We sat in a meeting with Rabin in a classroom at Tel Aviv University, a combination of idealistic twenty-something American Jews along with non-Jewish legislators and political aides from Latin and South America whose parties belonged to the SI, along with Rabin’s party.

This was before Rabin became a rabid peacemaker. He was snarly and somewhat smug as he sat on the edge of a classroom chair and listened to the litanies of complaints from his SI comrades who were criticizing Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians. It was years before he became the hero of the left, both in Israel and the world, as he took the leap that led him to his assassination.

This was also the summer that Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, a fact we found out about via transistor radio, a monumental move without bloodshed, so different from the trench warfare of this summer, at a moment when the world stood in wonder at the IDF, a very different time. It seemed easy still to love Israel. The kibbutzim, while struggling, still represented a communal ideal and the occupation was still fresh enough to think that it wouldn’t go on for decades.

I was reminded of this first visit when I sat with some high school students from the Reform Movement in North America, a NFTY youth group here for five weeks, most of the participants on their first trip to Israel. One young man said to me that he had come to Israel not knowing anyone else on the trip, a trip mostly comprised of teens that had gone to camp together for years. It was also the first time he was away from his brother and sister for five weeks. He had been worried that he would be lonely, but, even in the midst of the war, he was not. He felt like he was at home, he said, immediately at ease and filled with the warmth of not only the participants on his trip, but of the country itself, the same sentiment that welcomed me thirty-plus years ago.

The country has changed so drastically since then of course, and the change makes it harder to love for many of us. My conversation with him was held at Har Herzl, just next to the grave of Yitzhak Rabin. Not only was Rabin murdered for his vision of two states for Israel and Palestine, but also even today, his peace is not total. There is a security camera hoisted in the tree above the joint grave stones of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, a marker against vandals who might seek to destroy the graves, the eternal rest of the righteous (as indeed they already have: in 2005 vandals attacked the grave and in 2011 Rabin’s memorial in the eponymous city square was attacked).

After my first trip, I went to see someone I used to call my secular rabbi, the scholar and writer and socialist activist Irving Howe, to tell him of my confusion about where I could live, where I could feel settled. Irving didn’t understand the sense of chaos that my first encounter with Israel had created. I was floating above two continents all of a sudden, unsettled in both. His reaction was that this was not such a big deal, that I should have what Jews have had for thousands of years, a sense of homelessness, out of which came the great Yiddish culture that was the hallmark of his own life. That I would also embody the Jewish emotions of always living on a cusp that perhaps is one of the great gifts that we had for centuries, fueling our creativity and our passion for social justice, since we, ourselves, were outside of the majority or mainstream.

When I arrived in Israel this time, in the beginning of July, there were the terrible kidnappings and murders of the three Jewish teens and the Palestinian teen from Shuafat and then, the dark plunge into the war. Texts came from friends and family back in the U.S., imploring me to come back, to come home, but instead of returning early, I extended my stay here, unable to leave with the country at war and my friends, both Jewish and Arab Israelis, and Israelis and Palestinians, caught in a whirlwind of death, incrimination and fear, secure in my home that is not my home, or whatever it is, still not sure of a definition.

Now, as the ceasefire appears to take hold and the smoke begins to clear from the devastation of this summer, I look at this place and I think about my own younger self, coming to Israel for the first time to see an Israel still questioning its own direction.

Many of my friends and colleagues have written in articles or emails or posts throughout this summer that their love for Israel is being tested, waning. But, I’m not willing to give up. The future of the state is at a dangerous apex; there must be an end to the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of a more shared society between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, as well as more civic pluralism inside of Israel. Now would be a foolish time to walk away; just when the values that drew me, and others like me, to Israel are most at risk.

I have returned to Israel every summer for decades, for every July and then some, and increasingly, I come more often, still drawn by the elusive sense of home that I continue to seek here. It has gotten harder to love Israel, but my love is no less intense, just more complicated.

And, ironically, while I defiantly told Irving Howe decades ago that this sense of homelessness was not enough, I still live on this cusp, caught between two continents, with an identity as formed by my New York address as by my Israel yearning. Perhaps for now, that is enough.

America is a nation created in the image of an ideal, as is Israel. I am not giving up on America, despite its ills, nor am I giving up on Israel. As Irving Howe used to say about socialism, it’s perhaps not achievable, but the attempt to achieve it is “steady work.” So, too, is the “steady work” that we need to continue to create a sense of home, where we can join with others secure knowing we can close our eyes and be safe, and that safety is not mine or another’s alone, but its comfort extends over all its inhabitants, the entire mosaic of the landscape.

Jo-Ann Mort is a writer and consultant. She is the co-author of “Our hearts invented a dream: Can kibbutzim survive in today’s Israel?” and is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategy firm that works with clients in the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority area. 

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