Reflecting on Israel and Gaza

As the new U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem on May 14th, and Israeli soldiers opened fire on many of the thousands of Palestinians and Hamas operatives attempting to cross the militarized Gaza border fence, Joel Bernstein contributed this reflection on his time in Israel and his thoughts on the future of the country.

Reflecting on Israel and Gaza
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May 2018 — When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Israel in 1977, it was almost as though the Messiah had arrived. Old timers said they hadn’t seen such an eruption of happiness since the Six-Day War had ended. Sadat not only brought peace — he brought the prospect of no more war, because without Egypt, which countries would dare declare war?

Israel is much different today: oppressive, militaristic, a hi-tech paradise, but xenophobic. It’s led by men entirely unsympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians, men who surely are surprised that the Palestinians can still attract attention around the world — but only when they employ violence and are mowed down. Every newsroom in the country tries to make sure they have the latest, updated numbers on how many dead Palestinians there are. It’s all very sad. I cannot imagine the creation of a Palestinian state that Israel would agree to or that Palestinians would accept. So Israel will eventually become an apartheid state. Rest assured, Israelis can live with that.

It’s hard to imagine a country so small, yet so beautiful, with the sea and the desert, with fast cars on the highways and pushcarts on the streets, with kishke and hummus, with gunshots and violins, with passionate love and violent hatred, with gays and straights, Jews and Arabs. Did I say it’s small? You can walk on sand beside the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv and do the same an hour away in Gaza. When it’s peaceful, it’s paradise. When it’s war, it’s hell. You begin to think that maybe God made it that way on purpose because He wanted to see everything and its opposite in microcosm. And the thing is, everyone gets along, except when they don’t.

Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust, Jews who were pushed unwanted out of other places in other parts of the world, Jews who simply emigrated there to live among other Jews, all gathered together in the Holy Land where they ran up against people who were not Jews, who were Arabs. Inevitably they went to war. Surprisingly, the Jews, not thought of as a warrior people, won. What is strongest in their collective nature is a sense of survival. Against all odds, they have always survived.

I met a family once on a kibbutz in the middle of the country. I was doing a story on them. They were American Jews. They weren’t religious, but they liked the idea of Israel, and so they made aliyah, they and their two young sons, two years apart in age. These American kids grew up Israeli and happened to reach manhood at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Naturally, they joined the army. We interviewed their parents years later, after the war was long over. Their mom told us that one day she was sitting in front of their kitchen window and she saw a military car pull up to their house. An officer got out of the car and immediately mom knew why he was there. She called her husband over and they both waited nervously. As soon as the officer entered the house, mom blurted out, “Which one?” The officer hesitated, but then replied. “Both,” he said. Both her sons were killed on the same day, one fighting the Syrians on the Golan Heights, the other fighting in the Sinai against the Egyptians. That family didn’t have to be there, they were Americans, they weren’t Israelis, they could have stayed in Cleveland, their boys wouldn’t have had to fight in a war. They both knew that, but they insisted that there was never a moment when they doubted moving to Israel. They became Israelis and though they mourned the loss of their sons, they remained Israelis. They considered themselves survivors.

So, what’s the future going to bring? How will things resolve? I don’t think they will resolve. Jews will rule over Arabs in Israel. The country will not be a democracy, it will be a country in which one group of people exercises dominion over another group of people.

I truly loved Israel. I loved the excitement. But it was too much. I worked too hard and I was glad to leave. In fact, every time I left the country on vacation or on home leave I was happy to be out of there, to be away from the constant balagan. It’s a place with too much emotion, too much passion. But now that I’ve been away, I can’t wait to get back.