Waiting for Israel to Step Up


Is it right to say that a Jew is “anti-Semitic” if they are angered and offended by the actions of Israelis in Gaza?

by Michael Goldberg

We saw ourselves as the grandsons of legends, the sons of giants: the blood of the Maccabees ran through our veins! We saw Israel as our spiritual homeland, a place earned through the sacrifice and tenacity of our ancestors. My friends and I were heirs to a vast history and we were ready to defend it. At a moment when our perceived importance overcame our utter lack of experience, we pledged to defend Israel to the death if necessary. The American Navy would drop us offshore; we’d sneak into Tel Aviv with automatic rifles and shoot our way to liberate Jerusalem. We were 19.

I’ve kept that pledge in the back of my heart for the last 14 years. I’ve grown up, seen more of the world, and started a family. I’ve filled the time with a lot of life. I’ve been fortunate to fill it with a lot of love and laughter, too. And yet the pledge stuck with me, that immature promise that would carry so much more consequence now. Some days I’d just wake up wondering if I were ready, wondering if I could pack up and ship out. I’d do my pushups, check myself in the mirror. I’d think back to my camp days of shooting .22s and imagine the weight of a rifle in my hands. I was 33. I still meant it.

Of course, it was easy to keep such a promise in mind when I believed that Israel occupied the moral high ground in the Middle East. As younger men, my friends and I saw Israel’s violent birth as a necessary struggle for a Jewish homeland. The world would not make a place for the Jews so we made one for ourselves. Where they could not buy land, they fought for it. Where the land was barren, they made it fertile through hard work and science. Raised on Israeli bonds—Paul Newman and Yitzhak Rabin—we could only see Jews as strong and smart.

Bloodshed beats out diplomacy

I was blind-sided when Ariel Sharon marched to the Temple Mount in September 2000. Here was the leader of Israel’s right wing trumpeting the country’s control over ground that was sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In the television’s glow, I saw Palestinian kids hurling stones in response to his intrusion. I watched in horror as Israeli soldiers fired back with assault rifles. Where was the nuanced leadership, the Jewish sense of fairness? In what way was Sharon’s visit strong or smart? Was he looking for war? According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 5,502 Palestinians (fighters and civilians) and 1,062 Israelis died in the six years of fighting that followed.

When Hezbollah baited Israel into invading Lebanon in 2006, I was sure the fighting would end quickly. It didn’t. Little changed in the balance of power after 34 days of fighting and hundreds of casualties on both sides. Thousands of civilians were killed and wounded.

What was happening to Israel? Why were things going so badly in a country whose religion and culture teach us to question and to learn and treat others with respect? Israel was losing all of the moral and political stature it had accumulated through decades of sophisticated diplomacy and military might. Was this really the legacy of Israel’s founders? I was surprised and disgusted by the short-sighted attempts the country was making to solve its problems.

Then I found myself leaning against a wall, nauseous, clutching a January 2009 issue of Newsweek. Israel had launched a large-scale attack on Hamas targets in Gaza. The magazine showed a series of pictures of Palestinian fathers burying their children. For the first time, I imagined my own children dead. For the first time in 14 years, I saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as a father, a person, as someone uninterested in the rationalization of a child’s death.

Sure, I understood that Hamas embedded their defenses into civilian infrastructure to maximize collateral damage in Israeli strikes. I understood that Hamas had played dirty, that it had capitalized on Western media interest by sacrificing its own people. I also understood that Israelis had choices to make when confronted with provocative attacks. Why indulge the sick fantasies of Hamas when it clearly needed conflict to stay in power? Why give them the satisfaction of dead women and dead children?

Schools instead of bombs

Past Israeli leaders might have recognized the situation more clearly. They may have recognized Hamas’s weakness. Instead of dropping bombs, they might have delivered new schools and new industries—tools for creating new futures for the Palestinian people. Such creative thinking could have enabled lasting peace instead of continued violence. Or maybe they would have broken the cycle by simply not taking the bait. Maybe they would have fortified Israel, spending the vast sums of American aid money on advanced defenses. The 34-year-old version of me preferred a smart pacifism for Israel that would have forced Arab countries to deal with their own problems instead of promoting continuous conflict.

I realized that modern Israeli leaders have little need for such thoughts. Instead they rely on pro-Israel lobby organizations in Washington like AIPAC and the American Enterprise Institute. Those groups ensure blind obedience to a narrow slice of the original Zionist goal. They also ensure a steady stream of American money to support it. Israel’s moral failure started in the United States with a group of lobbyists unwilling to consider any degree of complexity in dealing with the Middle East. To them it is unacceptable to question Israel. With devastating political skill, they clear the American government of anyone willing to even question how Israel goes about its business.

That, I suddenly understood, is what I had been willing to die for: some Jewish-American idea of a country whose existence requires horrific suffering all around it. Israeli and Palestinian children died because no players in the Middle East had any real incentive to change.

I was ashamed. Ashamed because I hadn’t thought through the meaning of my promise. Ashamed because I was one of the Jews who had blindly supported organizations like AIPAC because anything else seemed tantamount to betrayal. Ashamed because American Judaism had been reduced to knee-jerk reflexes based on a core set of misguided fears and beliefs. Ashamed because most American Jews didn’t support a Palestinian state that could have been such a great partner for Israel.

I started to notice that people at work only talked about the Middle East in disgusted tones. Conversations would settle into descriptions of Jewish power and aggression. Nobody bothered to distinguish American Jews from Israelis—Jews were Jews. In my colleagues’ comments I heard a disdain for Jews that echoed traditional anti-Semitic complaints from the last few centuries. We have too much power, we have too much money. I was terrified when I realized that I agreed with some of their complaints. I quietly felt shame in being part of this “we,” shame in belonging to this group of people who was responsible for so much suffering. I found myself questioning whether Israel had any right to exist when it had strayed so far from the founding principles on which it was built.

Keeping remnants of hope

Those were painfully dark thoughts for someone once willing to die for Israel. It was hard to accept such a rift between the 19-year-old that I had been and the 34-year-old that I had become. Yet the transition from narrowly focused Zionist to an adult with a more balanced worldview felt right. I was asking myself hard questions in the way that Jews have always done. By questioning Israel, I was actually bringing myself closer to the intellectual honesty that I treasured in my religion and culture. This was the harder path. It was the right path.

It was also a path that I wished Israel would follow. I remained frustrated with the Israeli impulse to launch risky “precision” strikes and other military adventures when it could be more productive with savvy diplomacy. I wished Israelis would consider their standing in the world as a warning. The path of blind nationalism, dictated largely by the American Diaspora, has led them to their bloody and dangerous position. Still, as frustrated as I was with Israel, I wanted to believe in the Jewish ability to endure, grow, and ultimately thrive. I wanted to believe that Israel could do what was right for itself while looking out for the equally valuable nations around them. I wanted to see Israel escape its own hate and fear. I wanted the world to see Jews as more than the bloody brutes that they were actually becoming.

Not that long ago our ancestors made aliyot to Israel. They sought to restore Jewish character and confidence, which was long eroded by centuries of persecution, through hard work. It’s not too late to achieve that. We must reclaim our culture and our spiritual homeland from the fearful few who have taken them from us.

About the Author

Michael Goldberg
Michael Goldberg, 34, is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

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