08/01/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Israeli-American Predicament


It is a confusing time to be a young, American-Israeli progressive. The call for a ceasefire offered momentary hope, but the fighting has already continued, and the difficulty won't disappear. We can't have it both ways: There seems to be no way to reconcile earnest opposition to the Israeli government's oppression of Palestinians and the assault on Gaza with support for the protection of Tel Aviv from Hamas rockets.

I was born just outside Tel Aviv to Israeli parents and spent most summers of my childhood there. Growing up in New York, we spoke English and Hebrew at home. Tel Aviv is where my relatives still live, and, besides New York, it is the place where I feel most at home. Once a bastion of the left, it is still the main alternative for those secular Israelis who leave Jerusalem because they feel it is being overrun by religious fanaticism.

At a café with all its doors open, people eat lunch, read the paper with a cup of coffee, and have work meetings as a wind coming from the sea gently lifts and releases the off-white plastic awning out front. Women in summer dresses cross the busy street, talk on their cellphones, wear hats to shade themselves from the sun, smile, ride motorbikes, drive their cars, wait for the light to change, peer into cafés, note empty seats and consider them. A newly renovated promenade runs the length of the Mediterranean shore down to what used to be the largely Arab city of Jaffa.

"I figured it looks bad from New York," H. told me. "However bad it looks from there, it's worse here. It feels like Germany before the war. There's fascism in the streets."

I had called my friend H., who lives in an apartment in Tel Aviv, last Tuesday. I was still reeling from an email exchange I'd had with my mother, my father, and my stepfather, all Israeli citizens who have lived in New York since the '70s and '80s and consider themselves progressive, liberal Jews. My mother had forwarded us Charles Krauthammer's July 17 editorial in the Washington Post that presents Israel's current military offensive as a rare, unequivocal example of "moral clarity." I responded with my own forwarded message, one from an American Jewish group urging Americans to call their congresspeople and tell them that we don't want to unconditionally fund Israel's military actions in Gaza. My family faulted the email for being one-sided and not mentioning Israeli pain. At least look at the basic disparity between how many Palestinians have been killed, I said, how many women and children, and how many Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed.

I wasn't trying to suggest that the loss of a Palestinian life is more significant than the loss of an Israeli one, or vice versa. I wasn't trying to say that Israel should be expected to sit tight while missiles fly over the country. I was trying to talk about the disproportionate nature of the killing, to say that it reminded me of 2006 in Beirut, and of 2009 in Gaza -- more of a massacre than a war.

All three of my parents have generally followed the trend of most secular Israelis since the construction of the wall with the West Bank a decade ago: They are people who, in principle, want peace with the Palestinians and don't take kindly to the nationalist and uncompromising rhetoric from the Israeli government and AIPAC lobbyists in the United States. At bottom, though, if Israel is in harm's way, they will protect it, body and soul.

The story of Israel's statehood runs parallel to the story of my parents' youth. My stepfather's family has lived in Jerusalem for more than a century, and he served as an artillery intelligence officer in the 1967 and 1973 wars; the IDF has yet to pay him reparations for the hearing loss he has in both ears as a result of his service. My father's family moved from South Africa to Jerusalem in 1948, my grandfather serving as a medic for the nascent Israeli army, and my mother's family moved to Jerusalem from Argentina in 1967. My parents are proud of what Israelis have accomplished and continue to accomplish, and they are also deeply sad and disappointed, more than they can usually express in words, about the deferral of their parents' and their own dream of a just society. Though they take issue with the occupation, they don't make a point of actively protesting it or visiting the occupied territories -- most of which any Israeli citizen can enter freely but chooses not to -- to bear witness to some of the misery there. The most I have done is what is cynically called "tayarut kibush": occupation tourism. I've taken trips to Palestine -- Bethlehem, Susya, East Jerusalem -- with different activist groups and have written about my experience.

I had met H. during the summer of 2006, when I was 21 and working as a waitress on the beach in Tel Aviv. Hezbollah was holding two Israeli soldiers hostage, and Israel started dropping bombs over Beirut. Hezbollah launched missiles into northern Israel, and we were told on the beach that we had one minute from the time we heard the sirens to take cover. There was no bomb shelter, and running into the water wasn't recommended, so the best option seemed to be to stand against a stone wall with your back to the north and wait. Hezbollah claimed that they had the kind of rockets they needed to hit Tel Aviv, less than 100 miles south of the border with Lebanon, but no one really knew with any certainty; maybe they were bluffing. Several times on my walk to work, I peered into quiet homes and wondered how I would go about asking to share their fallout shelter in a pinch. I gathered from everyone around me that the idea was to keep living as normally as possible and to assume that the fighting would work itself out, as it always did.

Helicopters would occasionally pass over the sea, always in pairs, looking out for each other. For the first few days I would look up at them as if to acknowledge that, yes, this was happening, but then I stopped. The nonchalance of people around me seemed to say that it was enough to hear the staccato of their whirring blades to know the helicopters were there; no need to waste any time gazing at them in some kind of false shock.

A small TV with bad reception was kept on a national news channel in the walkway between the beach bar and the kitchen, right by the sugars and the silverware. I'd be balancing a tray with bottles of beer in one hand and holding a plate of fries in the other while listening for which regions had been hit, not recognizing the names of most of them and not understanding whatever else the broadcasters were saying because news vocabulary is difficult for me. I kept being reminded that even though I held an Israeli passport, had been born there and spoke the language, Israel wasn't really my country.

Now in my parents' responses I feel it again: You don't understand, they seem to be telling me; you don't understand what or who we're up against. These people don't believe in Israel's right to exist. If it were up to them, Israel would be blown off the map. Though my parents are open-minded, they are beginning to lose patience and energy. In their older age they seem to feel closer to Israel and more protective of it.

Ari Shavit, whose book My Promised Land was hailed as a nuanced portrait of a complicated history, wrote a week ago in Israel's traditionally leftist newspaper Haaretz of the same kind of moral clarity that Krauthammer claims: "Are we justified?" Shavit asks. "Clearly." How can anyone -- either Israelis or Palestinians -- ever be justified in killing children? I don't understand the logic. Shavit makes the same familiar rhetorical moves: He refers to the state of Israel as a miracle, invokes biblical imagery of David and Goliath, and returns repeatedly to the righteousness of Israel's actions in the face of annihilation and evil.

But Israel isn't fighting for its survival right now. It is fighting a volatile and armed organization whose antagonism has only been nourished by the Israeli government's determination to keep Palestinians as second-class citizens, by its expansionist policies, by its refusal to stop building settlements on Palestinian land. This is not a justification of Hamas' actions; it is merely my attempt at understanding what has been a seemingly unsolvable mess for as long as I can remember. What I know right now is that fanatical Palestinians and fanatical Israelis are some of the only voices being heard.

Peace protests in Israel end in fistfights, H. tells me now. If you criticize the attack on Gaza, you're not a patriot. He feels he can't even talk to anyone about what he thinks: that these missiles Hamas is launching shouldn't surprise anybody, that the grounds for these actions were laid long ago when Israelis voted in a right-wing government whose objective has been to oppress Palestinians by keeping their resources and rights limited.

H. works with children and plays games with them to enhance their social skills. These days, in their pillow fights, one side is Tsahal (the Israel Defense Forces) and the other side is Hamas, or simply all the Arabs. He's noticed a resurgence of the phrase that's usually kept to a hush and seldom heard: "Mavet la'aravim" ("Death to the Arabs").

The most I have ever witnessed of a leftist majority organizing in Israel was three years ago, in July 2011, several months before Zuccotti Park. A 25-year-old woman who had been evicted from her Tel Aviv apartment because she couldn't make the rent decided to pitch a tent in protest. Low salaries coupled with rising costs of basic goods and rent across the country made it increasingly difficult for people from all ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds to provide for their families. Soon there were nearly 200 grey tents on the sand and grass all along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Someone scrawled "If I were a Rothschild" in large letters across a white sheet and hung it at the square by the national theater house.

In the heat of the day, people lounged in the shade of the sheltering trees. Passersby read the signs of protest: Bibi, resign! If the government is against the people, the people are against the government! An entire generation demands housing! White news vans were stationed at the head of the boulevard, their satellite dishes open to the sky. A mesh tarp covered some common areas: "the salon" where conversations about the political and social conditions of the country were held, and a few tables nearby where donated food was dished out from large tin pans in the evenings.

At night it was a carnival. Tent city dwellers and visitors gathered around a screen where someone was projecting an interview with a public intellectual on the nature of revolution. Bats flew overhead between the rows of leafy trees along the boulevard. Sunburned and long-stoned young people were curled together on the ground, sleeping. Down the street a foam blue mat held pairs of women and men practicing acrobalance. The men were lying on their backs, their legs extended at a 90-degree angle with the women's lower backs arched over their feet. They were performing vulnerability and letting us watch.

The first march was short and peaceful. Tens of thousands of people walked from the national theater to the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum. People brought their dogs and their children along. The 25-year-old spoke candidly:

"They ask us what solutions we have to the housing problem, and I say that's not our job; that's for our elected representatives to figure out."

The crowd cheered her on and, in their more energized moments, resumed their chant, leading off with two fierce iambs: "HA'AM DORESH," and then "TSEDEK CHEVRATI!" ("The people demand social justice!") They were angry, but they were peaceful. They hadn't once mentioned the occupation, but they were furious about the rising price of cottage cheese and the fact that they worked 12 or 13 hours a day and couldn't make their rent. I wanted them to scream about all the money going to the occupation and the wall and the settlements, but they wouldn't. The air of revolution was bewitching, but I couldn't tell where this was going. I watched them in a spell of silence.

Whatever remains of that leftist majority in Israel has slipped toward the middle and to the right. The most promise I see is in the grassroots groups that have formed in Israel and in Palestine. This is where the voices of reason coupled with a will to action can be found, but every time I am in Israel I have to look for them; their voices are being quieted by the louder, exhausted, furious majority. People don't want to talk about the disproportionality of the killing because their children are being drafted. H.'s neighbor's son is 19 years old and serving in Gaza. Every night his mother cries, and H. rushes to the window to see if the army has come to inform her that her son has been killed. Israel is small enough that everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been injured or killed. Sirens have been going off twice a day in Tel Aviv.

So I see where my parents are coming from. Now, decades after leaving Israel for other pastures, who are they to sit comfortably in their homes, badmouthing it? Even when they acknowledge that Israel's actions may be extreme, they usually temper the statement with another, very familiar one: "It's easy to criticize from far away." At the end of the day, my parents are Israelis, as H. reminds me, so they're responding like people there are responding.

But what I want them -- and that old, tired Israeli leftist majority that has been shaken to its core -- to criticize is the government and its military decisions. I want them to ask themselves whether they truly want this kind of use of force to be carried out in our names. And I want them to fight with me for a country where you can still organize your community around a just cause, and where you can voice disagreement freely.