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Conversations with Grandpa about Israel and Palestine

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002

“So, what revolutionary future do you see for Israel today, Joshy?” That’s my grandfather Abe talking; I called to wish him a happy 84th birthday. “Are they all packed for Texas?” He‘s still stuck on an errant comment I made some years back that the Israelis could all move to the U.S., maybe Texas. After all, I said without much thinking, there’s more room there. That is not, in fact, my political outlook on the region, but I do have a much more nuanced view on the Arab-Israeli conflict than my grandfather, or anyone else in my family for that matter, and the gap between us is widening.

For them, the wagons are circled: Israel is besieged by a ruthless, insatiable enemy and must defend itself. Any talk of Israel pulling out of the occupied territories arises less out of moral concern than a notion that unilateral withdrawal might be necessary to keep the bad guys fully at bay. Some of the remarks they‘ve made I wouldn’t want to repeat. My grandfather, Abe, tends to be more careful. When he is grouchy, he likes to add flair: About his condo in Florida, for example, he‘ll say: “They oughta give this place back to the Seminoles!” or on my upcoming trip to New York (his home town), his comment was “Let the Dutch have it!” But when it comes to Israel, he doesn’t joke, and these days, he reflexively supports Israel‘s policies.

That isn’t too surprising -- he is, after all, a lifelong Zionist. But he was also a union organizer, a left-wing kibbutznik, a strong advocate of social justice, and his biggest complaint with “the world today” is that people continue to be unkind to each other, both personally and on the grand scale of geopolitics. Why, I‘ve asked him on occasion, does this ethos of respect and fairness not extend to the Palestinians, many of whose nationalist aspirations are not all that different from his own? Although his comments are worded more sharply since the second Intifida reached fever pitch that fateful first night of Passover, the answer tends to be the same: We have no choice. It’s Us or Them, unfortunately. And besides, he says, we fight honestly; but they -- they hit below the belt.

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I can understand this attitude because I sometimes feel it myself. It is direct and straightforward, an easy way to order what is in truth an immensely complex reality. It‘s the kind of gloss on detail you might expect from someone who’s believed in one ideal above all others for most of his life. It is also a gross solipsism, a willful, parochial delusion that infects both sides, now more than ever -- the kind of self-serving image that discourages dispassionate discourse and has plunged the region back into a vicious blood feud.

“What do you have against Israel?” is the kind of thing I get from my grandfather‘s friends or neighbors when the topic inevitably comes up. Although he doesn’t always speak up for me, my grandfather knows it‘s an unfair question. I am neither Zionist, nor anti-Zionist, although I am familiar with the topic and the place. I wrote my thesis on the mid-nineteenth century birth of Jewish national identity. (“I just read Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation, in the original German,” I told my grandfather once; “you and all the other yekkes,” he retorted.) I‘ve enjoyed a lot of time in Israel, much of it at an archaeological excavation, knee-deep in the dusty, ochre layer where Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the biblical city Ekron, shortly before he moved on to sack Solomon’s first Temple. And, as my grandfather understands, since I‘ve interviewed him at length about it, I have a certain pride about his days as a Chalutz -- a settler and kibbutz pioneer in British Mandatory Palestine.

Both my grandparents were members of Hashomer Hatzair, one of many offshoots in the tangled taxonomy of Jewish nationalism that sought to fuse Zionist aspirations with revolutionary Marxism. They met in “the movement” as kids: Abe was 11, Dotty, my grandmother, 12. It was 1929. Eighteen years later, they boarded the Marine Carp together from pier 81, at 49th Street on the Hudson side of Manhattan, and set sail for Palestine, where they joined a kibbutz on the fertile coastal plain and set about, they believed, rebuilding themselves and the Jewish people through agricultural work and national revival. They heard David Ben-Gurion declare independence on the radio, stood watch with rifles at the kibbutz’s edge in the ensuing war, and lived to celebrate the Armistice declaration. Although they returned to New York because of their infant son‘s poor health, Abe and Dotty worked for the movement the rest of their lives. I’ve always found their story quite heroic -- what conviction to have at age 12! -- I now see it in greater relief: The birth of Israel was not purely valor versus evil, and people like my grandparents were blind to the fact that their great victory was the beginning of a tragedy for another whole people.

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