AT 6:00 a.m., the Holy City is already awake. The sun has yet to present itself in the sky, leaving Jerusalem’s streets tinted in an ethereal cobalt. The city’s Muslims have been up for at least an hour, if not longer, many dragging themselves from bedded serenity to the carpets of the Al-Aqsa Mosque for fajr, the first of Islam’s five daily prayers. Some Christians have similarly roused themselves for morning worship. The majority of Jerusalem’s Jews are still asleep, but more than a few have brought themselves to Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall of King Herod’s Temple, the Second Temple — on top of which the Al-Aqsa complex now lies — for their own morning prayer. Religions are claustrophobically stacked here like battlements.
There are no tourists in sight, and I feel out of place at the Western Wall. I’m not a voyeur, but a poorly practicing Jew, not the type of Jew, the kashrut by-the-book Jew, who makes pre-daybreak or even weekly pilgrimages to synagogue, let alone to this holiest site, to pray. I’m not alone, though. My Muslim friends are somewhere in the vicinity, having just completed fajr a few meters above. One other unstrict Jewish friend (who had the idea for this early morning trek) is nearby as well. He’s placed himself a polite distance from the wall, settling into a plastic chair from which to observe the morning’s davening Hasidim. I apparently have no sense of decency, and instead dart toward my unoccupied slice of crumbling holiness.
My Hebrew skills are nearly nonexistent. I, like most American Jews, was taught the language only to read from the Torah upon reaching Jewish adulthood at the age of 13. We’re left with largely useless Hebrew skills; we sound out prayers but have no inkling of what we’re saying. When I pull out my iPhone to find the Hebrew and English transliterations of certain prayers for which I retain an affinity and do not know by heart — the Mourner’s Kaddish and Mi Shebeirach, the healing prayer, chief among them — I feel preposterous. Here I am, a gay American Reform Jew, a walking sin to those black-hatted Jews around me (and to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, for that matter), reading my own chosen prayers which I’m certain are not intended to be said at this time of day. Still, I close my eyes, grasp a loose brick with more intensity than expected, say my prayers, and tear up. When I’m done, I look around. Nobody has paid me any attention, negative or otherwise. Despite my secular dress, and perhaps my being, I’m still nothing more or less than a Jew. Here, that’s all you have to be.
It’s now 6:45 a.m., and the sun has begun to rise over Jerusalem. An aggressive light has done away with dawn’s sapphire, coating the Old City’s aged limestone in its rightful gold. Now, the holy city is truly awake. The two of us diaspora Jews walk back to our modest East Jerusalem hotel, back through the Muslim quarter many Jews prefer to avoid, to meet our friends — an odd conglomerate of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and a sole atheist — for an Arab breakfast.
I have been to Israel twice before, first as a child to visit family who’ve lived here for decades and then again as a teenager on a Jewish exchange program. I previously worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a century-old wire service in New York. I am a Zionist and hold a deep affinity for Israel, but I don’t pretend the state to be sinless. I have long-resisted going on a Birthright trip; I am not interested in being patronizingly preached to about Israel’s merits in between bouts of Sheldon Adelson–sponsored binge drinking (and, ideally, Jewish intercourse and eventual coupling). I was instead delighted to be selected to take part in an interfaith trip to Israel and the West Bank organized by the Faith Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE), where I’m pursuing my master’s degree in International Relations. This junket, subsidized almost entirely by two British charitable trusts — one Jewish, one Muslim — this past December took an eclectic mix of 18 students ranging in age from 19 to 27, and in background from Turkish-Dutch to Mexican-Canadian to Singaporean to just plain old American, on a whirlwind tour of the Jewish State and the West Bank.
We visited an array of religious sites and met with a similarly diverse set of actors on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. The trip, unlike Birthright or some Palestinian analogues, required no ethnicity, faith, or political opinion, instead demanding only a willingness to grasp honestly with the conflict. None of us had ever before been to the Palestinian territories.
It was the promise of visiting the West Bank that drew me. I semi-expected, as Atlantic writer Peter Beinart promised I would, to have “everything change” after seeing Israel’s occupation, to maybe even have some Zionism sapped from my body. Indeed, I emerged from Bethlehem and Beit Sahour with a sense of dread, not because I felt morally deficient in my Zionism, but rather because I found my pessimism about the conflict to be generally apt: I saw clearly the bleak future in which Israelis and Palestinians are already living, and to which the Jewish diaspora has reluctantly become amenable.
It’s apparent that the two-state solution, long-considered the fair solution to this conflict, is dead and buried. It’s apparent that fear and anger governs both the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s apparent that this land’s likely future is as a Jewish single state in which Palestinians will be second-class citizens. It’s apparent that the Jewish diaspora is so paralyzed by the fear of antisemitism that we’re at least somewhat prepared to accept the Jewish one-state “solution,” given that it preserves our safe haven, God forbid the diaspora again gets so unsafe for Jews that we need to find safety in an Israeli passport.
Israel was not meant to be a theocracy. Theodor Herzl’s foundational 19th-century Zionism professed the need for an ethnic Jewish sanctuary, a home for history’s lambs, rather than an expressly religious state.
The Ashkenazi Herzl, like 17th-century Sephardi philosopher Baruch Spinoza, believed the Jews to be a political people. Judaism for them was not a matter of the siddur, or prayer book, but of one’s passport. The Jews were a nation, and according to Herzl we could no longer try to be dual citizens; we were the world’s unwelcome guests and could not simultaneously be Deutsche or Magyar or Polskie and Jewish, for our birthright membership in the latter inevitably inscribed us to persecution by those “real” members of the former. And if this was not already evident by the late 19th century, the Holocaust — known in Hebrew as HaShoah or “the catastrophe” — the mid-20th century systemic decimation of Europe’s Jewry, confirmed this pessimism for many. The Shoah exterminated most Jewish optimism, leaving its corpse to rot in Auschwitz’s mass graves, at the bottom of the Danube, and in Warsaw’s ghetto.
Emboldened by post-Holocaust pessimism, the United Nations (UN) in 1947 recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states and an internationalized Jerusalem in what had previously been British Mandated Palestine. Both the Jewish Agency, the premier Zionist nonprofit, and the Yishuv, the Jewish Zionist community in pre-Israel Palestine, accepted the plan; Arab leaders rejected it. Still, the UN General Assembly adopted it on November 29, 1947. Tensions then erupted into civil war, pitting Palestinians and to-be Israelis against one another.
Israel on May 14, 1948, declared independence; the Arabs launched an air attack on Tel Aviv that evening. Forces from Egypt, Transjordan (current-day Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded the next day. Even Saudi Arabia and Yemen sent soldiers, while volunteer fighters came from as far as Sudan and Pakistan. The Arab League-funded Palestinian irregulars, known as the Holy War Army, took part as well. Israel fought them off, emerged victorious, and took control of the areas the UN had recommended for the proposed Jewish state — plus almost 60 percent of the proposed Arab state. During the war, around 800,000 Palestinian Arabs chose — or were forced by Jewish military violence and mandated expulsion — to evacuate their homes in what is known throughout the Muslim world as the nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic. The Arab state response was to expel or force out 800,000 Arabic-speaking Mizrachi Jews from their ancestral homes of Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in several waves, over the course of three decades.
Amid this chaos, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to the Holy Land, fleeing a post-Holocaust Europe that retained its preceding antisemitism. But the society that would become Israeli was initially unkind to these émigrés. Europe’s Jews, according to Israel’s battle-tested first generation, were an embarrassment, blamed for passively marching to their demise.
“I heard many times that we went like sheep to the slaughter,” an 86-year-old survivor told Tablet in 2017. Those who somehow survived were not noble, but lucky. So when the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1951 commemorated the Holocaust, the body focused on the largest act of Jewish resistance — the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising in which Jews killed around 100 Germans before having their ghetto incinerated, leaving some 13,000 Jews dead — proclaiming the day as “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day.” In 1959, the Knesset passed the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day Law officially establishing Yom HaShoah, or “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” “Ghetto Uprising” disappeared from the day’s title, replaced with “Heroism,” but the message, the Jewish veneration of strength, remained clear.
By the 1960s, and particularly amid the trial and subsequent execution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish state began to more openly discuss the Holocaust. The governing attitude shifted away from shame, and survivors, rather than swelter through the summer in sleeved shirts to hide the numbers forcibly tattooed by the Nazis on their forearms, began to share their stories. In the spring of 1967, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt ramped up their military aggression and by June formed a military alliance. Egypt, which had for years aided Palestinian attacks stemming from the Gaza Strip, also expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, where they had guarded the border with Israel for over a decade. “Arab leaders promised Israel’s imminent destruction. Syria and Jordan began massing troops along Israel’s borders. In Arab cities, demonstrators chanted, ‘Death to Israel,’” Israeli-American journalist Yossi Klein Halevi later wrote. “Cairo Radio’s Hebrew-language program advised Israelis to flee while there was still time.” Expunged already from Europe, the Jewish people would now be driven into the sea. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol feared “a real massacre.” Israel, understandably fearful, on June 5 launched the preemptive strike against Egypt that initiated the Six-Day War.
Those Israelis fighting on the front line were backed by American Jews, who despite their generally liberal and antiwar attitudes found themselves supporting the Israeli military. One young Jew wrote in a letter to the Village Voice: “For the first time in my grown-up life, I really understood what an enemy was. For the first time, I knew what it was to be us against the killers.” An American girl studying in Israel wrote to her parents: “After learning all my life about Hitler and the destruction of the Jews and the rise of the Jewish state, I cannot just run out like this. […] I feel it is my duty to my religion, my people, and my country, to stay here and do whatever I can.”
Either by the grace of God or thanks to Arab state weakness, Israel in six days emerged not only victorious, but with further swollen borders, occupying the formerly Jordanian Old City of Jerusalem — home to the holy Western Wall — and West Bank, the once Syrian Golan Heights, and the previously Egyptian Sinai. To the victors the spoils evidently go.
But Israelis soon again felt themselves under attack. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Black September Palestinian terrorist group kidnapped and executed 11 Israeli athletes. Forensics, inexplicably to Israelis, showed that these athletes had not resisted their captors: they had not been fighters; they had been passive, perhaps even like sheep. Israel’s Olympians, like Europe’s Jews before them, had died waiting for a foreign savior who would not come in time. Optimism had once again killed the Jews, and in Germany, no less.
This new horror in Munich disrupted the simplistic Israeli view of the Holocaust, a shift most obviously evinced several years later when the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem erected a statue of Warsaw ghetto doctor Janusz Korczak, not a fighter, but a comforter. In August 1942, German soldiers came to the ghetto with a list of nearly 200 orphans to be sent to the Treblinka death camp, where 750,000 Jews died within hours of arriving. Korczak, their caretaker, chose to accompany the children rather than abandon them. He boarded the train, despite not being on the German extermination list. He was never heard from again.
While the Israeli consciousness allows for Korczak’s lionization, the preference — one evidently strengthened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear and strength messaging — remains for the Ghetto Fighters. As I stood in stood in front of Yad Vashem’s statue of the Warsaw fighters, a group of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers approached. They looked young, as all IDF recruits do. They were initially jovial, taking selfies and chatting, but their mood soon turned more somber, as if they had just then realized their inheritance of the Ghetto Fighters’ legacy of Jewish might. Indeed, “We are not the weak,” as a Jewish former member of Knesset later told us. “We are now a strong country.”
Israel valorizes such strength because the Jewish state views itself, and by proxy the Jewish people, as an island in an unfriendly ocean. This metaphor has seemed particularly apt since 1977, the year in which the Israeli right-wing Likud party secured its first majority and began “the lethal symmetry of competing messianisms: intifada and jihad on the one side; Biblically invoked settlements on the other,” as historian Simon Schama recently wrote in Financial Times. “With dismaying speed,” he adds, “criticism of the actions of successive Israeli governments mutated into denials of Israel’s right to exist at all,” such as those seen in the ranks of liberal movements like Britain’s Labour, Germany’s Greens, and among those on the American Democratic Party’s far left.
It’s true that no government “has yet come to power with anti-Semitism as its manifesto,” as Schama notes, but “there are other ways to kill off the safety of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world and those amounting to a passive deprivation of basic civil rights are legion today.” Attending synagogue services in New York, not some Jew-less backwater, has for a quarter-century required submitting to a bag check and an armed guard. Authorities across the “tolerant” West tell Jews that their safety cannot be guaranteed if they wear a kippah, let alone tzitzit or ultraorthodox garb.
Antisemitism and anti-Zionism remain similarly widespread in geopolitics. In 2016, the UN’s World Health Organization singled out Israel as the only violator of “mental, physical and environmental health,” and, under pressure from dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria, deleted parts of a report on Israeli actions in the Golan Heights because they were positive to Israel. In 2017, the UN’s 45-member Commission on the Status of Women singled out Israel as the only violator of women’s rights in the world. In 2018, the UN couldn’t muster the two-thirds backing needed to condemn Hamas, the Iran- and Qatar-bankrolled Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group that governs the Gaza Strip and has waged war on Israel since 1987, and has since 1994 done so through suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks, shootings, and kidnappings.
Increasing antisemitism in the United States and Europe only reinforces Israel’s survivalism. Even former US president Barack Obama tied his Zionism, his belief in the “justness” of the Jewish state’s existence, to “the active presence of anti-Semitism.” Israelis often go a step further down this ideological path, many considering us diaspora Jews foolish for remaining in Galuth, exile from the Holy Land.
And when everybody knows that Jews are the leading targets of hate crimes in New York City, and have been for some time, and the response to that reality has been tepid at best — and when American antisemites seem right “to think it is open season on Jews” — it’s not hard to understand this Israeli confoundment. “Why keep trying?” Israelis often question. “I think the reality is seeping in,” is now an increasingly American, not to mention French and broader European, response, here of Shoshana Bernstein, who lives in the New York City suburb where a recent stabbing at an Orthodox Jewish home left five injured. “We’re not safe as Jews in New York.”
One doesn’t have to accept the extensiveness of anti-Israel bias and antisemitism to understand why the Jewish state and Jewish people see prejudice everywhere, or why Israel is ever wary and constantly in survival mode, an admittedly unhealthy method of operation that produces rash policy decisions that prompt international outcry. But this criticism, given that it comes from the world Israel has already written off as unfriendly, is ignored by the Jewish state. When under attack, as Israel sees itself to always be, Jewish survival is consecrated — and little else matters. “To live is a Mitzvah,” wrote Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum of Warsaw, who the Nazis murdered in that city’s ghetto during the Holocaust. “When they attacked our souls, we joyously mounted the funeral pyres for the sanctification of the name. But now that it is our bodies they are after, the time of the sanctification of life begins.”
Parts of the West Bank ooze normality. Little girls in backpacks, some with hijabs and some without, giggle on the way the school as they would anywhere else; teenagers study for exams but are more often immersed in their handheld digital worlds; men and women ply their trades, selling everything from olive wood trinkets to oil-soaked katayef pastries. The West Bank’s beige mountains, like their Israeli counterparts, resemble crumbling halva.
But Bethlehem’s streets give away the game. Graffiti, likely the result of youth anger, valorizes the same Palestinian freedom fighters the international community considers terrorists; posters in the city center celebrate those sentenced in the early 2000s to life in Israeli prisons; more adept art on the outskirts, near the Aida refugee camp — whose 70-year permanence betrays the supposed-temporal status of a “camp” — and the West Bank-Israel separation wall, which Israel illegally built largely within Palestinian territory rather than on the Israel side, celebrates literal terrorists like Leila Khaled, accuses Israeli children of “playing with apartheid” and welcomes visitors to “the world’s largest prison.” The display extends to the suburb of Beit Sahour, where I spent the night with a Christian Palestinian family.
“Israel built that,” my host, a stout middle-aged woman, offered as we drove by the towering barrier. “It separates us from Al-Quds,” she added, using the Arabic term for the cauldron that is Jerusalem. The lack of emotion in her voice evinced the banality of the wall, of the separation, and of the occupation. Her parents and daughters were born here. And given the state of the nonexistent Israel-Palestine peace process — and Israel’s imposed restrictions — she and her two daughters, along with her husband, seem likely to die here.
She hosted me and another LSE student, a British Muslim of South Asian descent. Her first question for the both of us was: “Muslim or Christian?”
“Muslim,” my friend said. She nodded, smiling politely. “We have both here,” she explained to us, proudly noting that Beit Sahour houses Muslims and Christians without conflict.
And then she turned to me. “Jewish,” I told her, not one to hide my identities even in situations when I probably should. The car, screaming past the wall, fell into an uncomfortable silence. The other Jewish student on our trip who expressed his Judaism to his one host received a similar non-response; the other perhaps intelligently didn’t disclose her faith. It was apparent that here, in Beit Sahour, in the West Bank — where the Jew is synonymous with the Israeli soldier, the sins of the former imposed upon the latter — Judaism was not on the menu.
This reality of Jewish-Muslim non-interaction is standard in the Palestinian territories. A Palestinian West Bank resident working there at a pro-peace nonprofit said he didn’t meet a single Jewish person until his 20s. And even when prompted with the opportunity to, he recalled hesitating, asking himself: “How can I talk to my enemy?” This animosity is hardly surprising. The Israeli occupation has ground down the Palestinians, driving them into, as he put it, “airplane mode”: Palestinians seem to have decided that there’s little left to do besides push on somewhat apolitically, making the best of their limited lives in which Jews are represented only militarily.
Israeli Jews admit to a similar lack of Jewish-Palestinian interaction in their own lives. And while the situation is better there for Palestinians, 300,000 of them in East Jerusalem, Israeli territory since the 1967 Six-Day War, are without citizenship and remain permanent residents with fewer rights. Meanwhile, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who enjoy more rights than the non-citizens of East Jerusalem, who in turn have it better than the West Bank’s Palestinians, whose quality of life far surpasses that of their counterparts in Gaza, remain second-class citizens. Israel’s 2018 nation-state law, which legally enshrined it as the state of the Jewish people — officially subjugating all other peoples in the process — “only confirmed what we knew,” as a Muslim woman in the Jerusalem suburb of Ein Rafa told me.
Still, Israel is most frequently criticized for its occupation of the West Bank. While left-wing American Jewish advocacy groups generally believe that Israel, to exist safely, must end the occupation, the more controversial Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement — which liberal Jewish group J Street has decried for “anti-Semitic rhetoric” — explicitly rejects Zionism, calling the belief in Jewish self-determination the “ideological pillar of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid,” per The New York Times. Regardless, left-wing Western groups have a rough consensus that Israel must end this occupation. But the reality is not simple enough to satisfy the yearnings of liberals coming of political age in Berkeley or Providence. In the real world, Israelis and Palestinians exist in a state of mutual disdain and mistrust, preempting any kind of good faith negotiation.
Israel removed every Jewish settlement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and handed it over to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas soon after won a majority of seats in the Palestinian elections and seized control of Gaza. The group, considered terrorists by most of the West, provides substantial social services to Palestinians and earns significant public support as a result. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the PA, which governs the West Bank, has dwindling public support and no clear successor.
Many Palestinians are happy to decry Hamas terrorism and express some vague interest in a brokered peace that has never before seemed so far away. But these views are not representative of the population at large. It was for this reason refreshing to hear a middle-aged French PhD-holding Palestinian educator from the West Bank speak more aggressively and honestly. He was unwilling to compromise or condemn Hamas and other terrorism. “We have the right to resist occupation by all means,” he said. “It’s a legitimate right.” But 70 percent of Israel’s population — and 80 percent of its industry — live in the shadows of the West Bank’s mountains, between Haifa and Ashkelon. Israel, aware of Hamas’s growing popularity, is not unwise or irrational to be concerned about extremism on this doorstep.
This realpolitik, of Palestinian frustration and Israeli self-preservation, suffocates not only peace, but the lives of the Palestinians who comprise 40 percent of the population under Israeli rule.
“On one side, we saw a people governed by laws and regulations; on the other, we saw people — some of them our own relatives — whose lives were ruled by soldiers and checkpoints,” Yasmeen Serhan, a Palestinian-American staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote in 2018 of Israel and the West Bank. “On one side, we met people who lived in coastal cities such as Jaffa and Acre. On the other, we met people who had only ever dreamed of seeing the sea.”
The Rabbi made aliyah, ascending from New York to Israel, over three decades ago. He’s lived in Gush Etzion, the Israeli settlement known for the 2014 Hamas murder of three Israeli teens, for almost as long. He’s an unrepentant Zionist — he refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, the Jewish biblical (and, since 1967, official Israeli) names for this region — and believes this land belongs to the Jews. But unlike many other settlers, he empathizes with and hopes to live alongside the Palestinians.
The Rabbi recalls most of his life in the West Bank being like a film in which the Palestinians were only gray background. It was for this reason that he in the early 2010s helped found a joint Palestinian-Israeli community center in the West Bank. “Where I thought there was only an enemy, I met a human being,” he recalled. Now with his Palestinian partners he organizes encounters in the West Bank between the two communities, ideally laying the seeds for some future peace. One of the Rabbi’s Palestinian counterparts, a prominent activist who asked to remain anonymous, echoed his Jewish compatriot. Growing up in the West Bank, he “couldn’t even imagine that Jewish people had tears,” he said. This changed when he and his mother, alongside Palestinians who had lost family members to Israeli violence, met a group of Jewish mothers who had lost their own children to Palestinian terrorism. Still “good intentions,” he admits, “are not enough.”
We met with an array of other Israeli and Palestinians from other like-minded groups who offered similar stories. They were proud to have helped foster Israeli-Palestinian humanizing but preferred to not talk about politics or about the conflict they believe to be essentially unsolvable. “You could have Gandhi in Tel Aviv and Mandela in Ramallah and this wouldn’t be solved,” one Palestinian told us. Politics always intrudes, something demonstrated perhaps best by the lengthy non-relationship between Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai, Palestine and Israel’s respective de facto national poets.
The two men wrote about the same land, Darwish of dispossession and exile, and sometimes with anger — “It is time for you to be gone / Live wherever you like, but do not live among us / Die wherever you like, but not die among us” — Amichai of life there: “Even my loves are measured by wars / I say, ‘That happened / after the Second World War.’ ‘We met / a day before the Six Day War.’ I would never say / ‘before the peace of ’45–’48’ or ‘in the middle of / the peace of ’56–’67.’”
Cultural and professional exchanges, Amichai recognized, can only do so much:
It’s quite difficult for poets to communicate with one another in a society that is politically torn apart the way that ours is. I have a doctor friend who tells me it’s the same with doctors. When, for example, he meets Syrian doctors at international meetings, everything is cordial and collegial on the level of being doctors. But this is a kind of illusion, because ultimately politics intrudes. At some point the Israeli and the Syrian have to return to the political realities of their own countries and whatever exchanges were made become transitory. This is true for Arabic and Hebrew poets, for Jewish and Arab doctors and teachers. The exchanges on professional levels help but on political levels — in terms of real political effects — the results are illusory.
No level of interpersonal Israeli-Palestinian connection will override the fact that we seem to already be living in the Jewish one-state reality. “The ideological argument between one staters and two staters, which continues to this day, disguises the fact that in practice we are all one staters,” writes Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf. “Other ideas are completely hypothetical.”
Most of the activists we met seemed to recognize this. They, unlike some idealists in the West, do not believe themselves to be setting the groundwork for some eventual two-state solution. They’ve chosen to focus instead on localized hope. Indeed, this choice, for left-leaning Jewish and Palestinian activists here and in their diasporas, is becoming increasingly clear: present an alternative compatible with Israel’s illiberal reality or allow our most tribalistic leaders to write the future.
Many American and diaspora Jews, particularly younger Jews, fail to uphold Judaism’s textual demands. We devour terefah cheeseburgers and fail to put our lives on hold for Shabbat, the Sabbath. But we still identify as Jewish. We know that Judaism is a birthright, granting us welcome into an array of local communities across the globe while also marking us for similarly wide-reaching bigotry. But diaspora Jews are optimists: we believe in multiculturalism; we believe our national and Jewish identities to be in harmony, despite history, despite Spinoza and Herzl.
I met a man whose Jewish family lived in Germany for 200 years before the Nazis came to power. “They thought they were German,” he said. “They were proven wrong by Hitler.” He remembers seeing and being forced by his father to salute him — “Heil Hitler,” he cried in Swastika-laden Berlin — for fear of being singled out as a Jew. He escaped to Wales by Kindertransport as a young child. The Nazis later killed the child’s father, leaving him an orphan (his mother died earlier). He eventually emigrated to Israel at 18. The Jewish diaspora’s belief in multiculturalism is “not misplaced yet,” he told me. But the professed atheist added cautiously: “Let us pray I’m right.” Even Israel’s non-believers ask Adonai to protect the Jews. Even Israel’s optimists are pessimists.
In late 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry preached the popular liberal idea that Israel cannot occupy the West Bank and remain a democracy to the world. He promised that without the Israeli forfeiture of the West Bank, the Jewish state “can be Jewish, or it can be democratic,” and that “Israel’s future is a Jewish and democratic state.” This was not true then; it is somehow even less true now. Israel has not given up the West Bank, instead continuing to build settlements there — all while retaining its democratic character throughout the West. Not only was Kerry’s ultimatum based on a false premise, but his comments evinced a deep misconception of Israel and of the Jewish people all-too-frequently held by perhaps well-meaning Western policymakers.
Jews are survivalists. Every Jewish family history is a tragic family history, comprising just one chapter in a collective chronicle overstocked with martyrs. We’re defined by our trauma, Europe’s thousand-year pogrom that culminated in the Holocaust and centuries of continued antisemitism, unhealthy as that may be. “Spilled blood is not the root of trees,” Amichai once wrote, “but it’s the closest thing to roots we have.” Fear still governs the Jews. Dread clouds our ability to be perfectly moral. Terror, intensified by anti-Israel rhetoric and violent antisemitism even in New York, home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, forces us to focus on protecting our safe haven, and prevents many of us from concerning ourselves too intensely with Israel’s character, lest our criticism add to the international chorus that, God forbid, could bring about Israel’s dissolution. An illiberal Jewish state is better than no Jewish state at all.
“I wish we didn’t have all that history,” Amichai once said. “It’s like polluted air — with so much religion, sentiments and dried blood in the air — it’s hard to breathe.”
But this moral dyspnea, beyond affecting the Jewish psyche, enables us to disregard the Palestinians. It was, therefore, unsurprising that a Palestinian Muslim citizen of Israel who once worked for Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s 1999 campaign told us he wishes Israel would change its flag and anthem. He’s accepted Israel’s existence but is visibly and understandably pained by the state’s exclusionism. Nobody wants to grow up in a country of which they could not possibly ever become president or prime minister. It is the Israeli anthem Hatikvah, which is sung in Jewish communities across the world and references the Zionist singing of a “Jewish soul,” that is simply too much for him. He sighed: “I have no Jewish soul.”
Souls, however, are a privilege of the optimistic, of those who live without the omnipresent fear of their destruction. And while the diasporic Jewish dream is still somewhat optimistic — we don’t fear destruction like our Israeli counterparts — even we have “lost the purity of the untested,” as the young Jew wrote to the Village Voice during the Six-Day War. “I will never kid myself that we are only the things we choose to be. Roots count. I will never again claim to be a pacifist.”
The Israeli Jewish dream, formed in the embers of the Jewish people’s genocide, is more intensely pessimistic, its cynicism enabling the ethnic privileging of us, the Jews, at the expense of an other, the Palestinians. And while the Western, and indeed, even the Jewish left pleads tirelessly for change, Israel is weary; its Jews have lost the capacity for optimism. “Jerusalem is full of used Jews, worn out by history, Jews secondhand, slightly damaged,” Amichai once wrote. “What does Jerusalem need? It doesn’t need a mayor, it needs a ringmaster, whip in hand, who can tame prophecies, train prophets.”
Our diaspora might yearn for democracy, for the Jewish state to serve as a beacon for the gentiles, but that time of socialist Zionism and kibbutzim is gone. Survivalist Israel now prefers the whip, despite its illiberal tendencies. “And the eye yearns toward Zion, and weeps,” Amichai continued. Never again will the Jews be sheep.
Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among other outlets.