An Israel I Recognize

An Israel I Recognize


Leonard Zwelling

A long-form front page article in The New York Times on October 26 by Patrick Kingsley describes a ten-day automobile journey from the top to the bottom of Israel with many stops in between including Tel Aviv and the West Bank. It was the Israel I have come to know over my four trips. It is a place as complex as the United States and for largely the same reason. It’s complicated. It’s diverse. Things are contentious, especially the people although I do love Israelis and enjoyed spending time with the few Palestinian Arabs I was able to meet.

People have come to Israel from everywhere–from Russia, from the United States and from Africa. They have tried to live in peace with the natives, Sabra Israelis and Palestinian Arabs and failed on many occasions. Right now there is a bit of a lull. There is no active intifada. Gaza is relatively quiet. There’s a new national government coalition in place. Netanyahu is not prime minister. What is surely lacking in Israel is what is lacking here in the United States. Consensus.

Israel consists of about 9 million citizens with a goodly number being Arab. It is not the land that its founders, mostly Ashkenazi European Jews thought they had started. It is a Jewish state with lots of kinds of Jews from the secular to the Haredi Orthodox and, of course, many non-Jews as well. The outside world is still pushing for a two-state solution to the status of the Palestinian Arabs, and a one-state solution might mean the end of Israel as a unique Jewish homeland if the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza were granted full and equal citizenship. The new government is a mixture of right and left, even Arabs, but encompasses no ultra-Orthodox members, a problem when so many of the citizens of Israel are in that camp.

What struck me upon reading the lengthy piece was the similarities between modern day Israel and contemporary America. There are rich and poor and many of the rich are immigrants. There is an historically down-trodden group, the Palestinians, in need of new leadership and new direction, much as the poor of the United States need a new voice to speak for them. And finally, the traditional runs up against the modern in Israel just as it does in the United States from poor Bedouin Arabs living in tents and trailers to the modern skyscrapers of Tel Aviv to the massively expanding settlements on the West Bank. How can these things all be in such a small country? How can Appalachia co-exist with Manhattan in one country here?

Israel, like America, is in transition and no one is quite sure what the end game is likely to be. Surely, Israel will not resemble the land its founders envisioned in 1948 any more than America looks like the place born in Philadelphia in 1776. One thing is certain. Anyone who says that a complicated problem like Israel or the United States has a simple solution is wrong.

The Israel depicted in this article is the Israel I have known. It has changed greatly since my first trip in 1998 that predates the Second Intifada. Then, I casually strolled on the top of the Temple Mount and touched the rock in the Dome of the Rock that is the top of Mount Moriah and the place of Muhammad’s ascending to heaven. That must be harder for an American Jew to do today than in 1998. Then again, when the United States was 73 years into its life, the Civil War was still to be fought and the question of the legality of slavery had still to be determined. We know the repercussions of that war and of slavery echo down the years to the present. Why would anyone expect it to be any different in Israel when it comes to the ultimate status of the Arabs living in what used to be a British Territory called Palestine.

Read the article and get a good feel for Israel today, but don’t expect the current picture to be a stable one. It will change there just as things change here. That’s what democracies do, especially ones that are melting pots of people from everywhere and from right there.

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