This Broken Home

Revisiting Israel

by Nir Rosen

April 23, 2002


Over a year ago, I revisited Israel after a three-year absence. As my El Al plane landed in Tel Aviv, the intercom played an Israeli folk song of my childhood, “Its so good that you’ve come home.” Despite my cynicism, the child in me wanted to cry. I stifled the nascent tears, which I rejected as a vestigial remnant of the nationalist propaganda they had inculcated me with in the summer camps of my coastal village. Just like every other time I came, I was entering a maelstrom, new and unique, yet a mere variation on the same theme of bloody nationalism, paranoid identity and violent religion that defined Israel.


This time it was a literal reiteration of my childhood, when the original intifada (Palestinian uprising that started in 1987) forced us Israelis to confront the fact there was a population of oppressed Arabs whose aspirations we were denying and whose land we were occupying. A new intifada had erupted last year due to Palestinian frustrations with Israeli arrogance and their own leadership’s failures. The only feeling I recollect from the original intifada is a sudden fear of every Arab I saw, for perhaps he would stab me, or overturn my bus into a ditch. Now I was returning as a man, having swallowed years ago from the painful chalice of truth and realized that my whole conception of good guy and bad guy, of victim and victimizer, was backwards, and I belonged to the onerous Goliath asphyxiating the Palestinian David. I was also returning with the knowledge that whereas once I had dreamed of joining Israel’s elite special forces, now, even if I wanted to I could not. An Israeli foreign service officer had informed me of a file possessed by the Israeli government identifying me as pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist and an “enemy of the state.” Not bad for a 23 year old.


My first morning in Israel I was awakened by the high-pitched voice of my grandmother shouting to other family members: “We will never give up the Temple Mount! It is the heart of hearts of world Judaism!” The Temple Mount is called the Haram al Sharif by Muslims. It is in East Jerusalem and both sides wanted it. I groaned to my grandmother my hope that they give back the Western Wall too, and pulled the pillow over my head. The day I arrived, Prime Minister Ehud Barak had indicated his acquiescence to a Clinton plan for Jerusalem’s partition. I had arrived at a time when the country was engaged in a violent debate over whether a bunch of rocks were more sacred than human life.


My aunt drove me to the bus station to go to Jerusalem. She lived in a Tel Aviv suburb and described how idyllic it was. Indeed, I agreed with her. Green hills, peace, silence, playgrounds, flower gardens, you wouldn’t know that a brutal war was being waged against the indigenous population half an hour away. On the way we heard on the radio of a terrorist bombing on a bus. Three explosions, six wounded, one of them critical. “The shopping malls were all empty when the intifada started,” she told me, “we were all afraid to go to crowded public places. You never know where they will strike. At least in a war you know where the fighting is, what the targets are. You can do something. All we can do is be afraid.”


Everybody in Israel spoke with resigned dread about the next “attack,” meaning terrorist bombing. They all expected it. Although the malls and streets were full, everybody was worried about attacks -- they were taken for granted. Indeed, there were attacks nearly every day I was there, and my mother insisted that I call her all the time. People expected to die any time they went to public places. Still, Israel has enough chemical and nuclear weapons, not to mention conventional ones, to blow up the world, and it has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It should get over its pretensions of being the besieged victim. Israel is now more often the victimizer than the victim.


As I waited at the bus stop, the paranoia of living in Israel finally got to me. I wondered if any of the cars driving by was a suicide car that rams into crowded bus stops. I looked at the two orthodox Jews standing next to me and wondered if they were terrorists disguised as Jews (it’s happened before). They were smoking cigarettes, I thought that was suspicious. When I got on the bus I looked at everybody on it to make sure that they did not look like terrorists. I figured the back of the bus was the safest place because it was the emptiest and afforded me the best view.


At one point the bus stopped and a young guy with a machine gun examined the baggage compartment and then went on the bus and looked for suspicious objects. This is routine. A young soldier sat next to me. He couldn't have been more than twenty. He was armed with a long M16 machine gun and a shorter cell phone on his belt so his mother could be in constant contact with him. His hair was slicked back and carefully spiked with gel. He wore designer sunglasses. He was a kid. I thought it was absurd to give children power over life and death. What experience and judgment could he have acquired that would allow him to properly decide when to shoot? I used to admire those soldiers, with the red berets of elite units. Now for the first time I was older than they were and I saw what little skinny kids they are, so young.


When the bus entered Jerusalem, I saw many posters supporting Ariel Sharon, the right wing leader expected to win the elections next month, with slogans such as “only Sharon can bring peace.” Well, I suppose even Slobodan Milosevic claimed he was bringing peace. Sharon had been the architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the slaughter that followed. An Israeli judicial inquiry had subsequently held him partly responsible for a horrible massacre of civilians and recommended that he be fired from his position as minister of defense. Street signs in Jerusalem are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Somebody had carefully erased all the Arabic from nearly every sign I saw using black spray paint. They had actually taken the time to do so to every sign. It was a clear statement that Arabs were not welcome. I saw graffiti like “Arabs out!” and “Kahana was right!” Rabbi Meir Kahana was a right wing leader who advocated the expulsion of Israel’s Arab population and imposition of Nuremberg type laws. He was killed ten years ago. I saw some posters commemorating the anniversary of his death and mourning him.


I got off at the main bus station and transferred to a local bus. It was crowded. I nervously looked at the other passengers to see if they looked like terrorists. How suddenly the pressure of Israeli life had gotten to me. A man was looking at me suspiciously. I wondered why. Did I look suspicious to him?


I walked through Jerusalem’s Old City. The markets were empty. Tourists weren’t coming because of the violence. The Palestinian shopkeepers stood idly until I approached, whereupon they excitedly displayed their tourist trinkets and T-shirts. It seemed ironic to me that they were selling pro-Israeli shirts, with slogans such as “America don’t worry, Israel is right behind you!” and even Israeli military slogans. I asked one Palestinian salesman how he could sell such items. “This is fucking shit!” he gestured at the shirt, “but we need money!”


I stopped by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Christians believe that Christ’s body had been placed there when he was taken off the cross. Faithful Christians could be seen in the dim light, kissing stone, pictures and nearly everything else. I walked up to the entrance for the Al Aksa mosque, from where Muslims believe Muhammad rose to the sky. Israeli soldiers barred me from entering. It was closed to tourists. This was the Temple Mount for devout Jews. Here, they believe the Jewish Temple had stood. And would one day stand. Finally, I made my way to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest sight. It was allegedly the last remaining wall of the ancient Jewish Temple. Hundreds of Orthodox Jews clad in black swayed by the wall. The wall did not seem that big or impressive. Large worn out yellow stones with a few brown bushes growing out of the cracks.


It seemed odd to me, to invest rocks with sacred qualities. Even if there was a god, would his presence be in a rock? Could a wall ever be holy? Wasn't it the idea that was supposed to be holy? How can you kiss an inanimate object in reverence? An icon, a wall, a rock? How can you kill or die for a rock? If there was a god would he want you to? I, who reject religion as absurd and backwards, can at least differentiate between holding ideas as sacred, and being truly religious, by acting in accordance with ideas through a genuine belief, and merely going through the acts, the formalities, the rules. Cross now, bow     now, kiss this, say that. It’s like military marching drills, a way of achieving conformity and unthinking obedience.


I woke up one morning to hear of another attack. A Jewish settler’s car had been ambushed in the Occupied Territories. It turned out that the Palestinian who shot at the car had killed none other than Benjamin Kahana, the son of the slain Meir Kahana, who had continued his father’s crusade. Also killed was his wife, and his children were all injured. On the radio I heard one of Kahana’s friends on the radio: “An Arab is an Arab. They all want us out of here. They have to get out. There will be terrorist attacks as long as there are Arabs here…”  My aunt quipped, “or as long as there are Jews here!” The interviewer asked, “should they [the Arabs] be expelled or exterminated?” The man responded, “One way or another they have to get out.” And would there be any revenge attacks? “We Jews don’t believe in turning the other cheek and we don’t believe in whining about our misery for profit. We believe in revenge.” And would the acts of vengeance be directed against the perpetrators or against any and all Arabs? “An Arab is an Arab. They are all the same and all want the same thing. It doesn’t matter.”


I sat on the train from Tel Aviv to Israel’s northernmost towns to visit a cousin. A pretty female soldier in khaki fatigues kept on making eye contact with me and then darting her glance away when I looked back. An elderly couple sat across from me. They were complaining to each other about the dead and the victims in the ubiquitous attacks. I looked out the window. Tel Aviv was beginning to look like Manhattan, with skyscrapers glistening beneath Mediterranean skies. Everywhere there were wide highways being built. An uncle bragged to me as he drove over one in his town, “this is the longest bridge in Israel!” Israel’s burgeoning technology and software industries can be seen along the roads. My mother looked out the window and commented on how ironic life in Israel was, referring to the war it was conducting while people in Tel Aviv pretended life was normal, living in happy oblivion. I looked at a forty-story statement of Israeli power, squinting as the sun shown off its windows and thought that there was no foundation for all this.


Israel and the Palestinians cannot be reconciled. My father always spoke about the coming blood bath that would make Israel look like Bosnia and I am now inclined to agree with him when before I dismissed him as a sardonic veteran of three wars. “The Palestinians want justice and the Israelis want a compromise,” he told me. And never the twain shall meet. My father sighed, “It was a mistake for us to come here to begin with. Zionism was a colonialist idea. The Palestinians were the American Indians. It was not an empty land. The blood will soon be up to our knees.” I looked out the window and wondered if all this could be erased. I had been to Bosnia before, and I had seen the rotting carcass of a country.


In Tel Aviv, I took my 9-year-old brother to National Square. It had been renamed Rabin Square after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated there five years ago. In the open square stood 315 life size white cardboard silhouettes of human figures. Organized by peace activists, this exhibit had been intended to demonstrate to the apathetic Tel Aviv residents who lived a safe distance from the war, just how many people were dying. A sign by the tent that served as the activists’ headquarters explained that each silhouette represented a person killed during the latest intifada. I went into the tent to take some flyers. A bellicose religious Jew entered and asked us if we believed in God. I told him to get the Hell out. By the time I left Israel there were fifty new silhouettes in the square. Soon after the exhibit was taken away. The organizer confessed that the nation did not care about peace.


My last morning in Israel I read the paper by the window, overlooking my grandmother’s vast orchard. I could smell the ocean breeze. Birds were singing, the sun was bright in a cloudless sky. I was at peace. As usual, the television was on. Pundits were shouting at each other in the brazenly rude way they always do on Israeli television. The headline in my newspaper was “Powderkeg!”


I wrote those words more than a year ago. The powder keg has exploded and my father’s predictions of a bloodbath have come true. There would now be at least 1,500 silhouettes in that Tel Aviv square, but like the man said, nobody cares. To my dismay, my parents, and all moderate Israelis have been radicalized. Now I find an unbridgeable rift widening between myself and my family, over which we communicate only by screaming. We no longer understand each other and I feel as though I live in a different world from all the liberal, sensitive and intelligent Israelis who were in my family.


They remind me of Serbs I have known, whose epistemology was dominated by propaganda and denial. They have the same defensive sense of persecution, the excessive and preposterous protestations of  victimhood that cannot mask the guilt that they deny. The Serbs deny the rape of Sarajevo, the slaughter of Srebrenica and the destruction of Vukovar, and the Israelis deny the original sin of their foundation, the expulsions, humiliations and massacres of the Palestinians for over fifty years. The Serbs call themselves the “heavenly people” and the Jews anointed themselves the “chosen people.” The Israeli “Defense” Forces have “Purity of Arms,” they are the most moral army in the world, killing only in self-defense. How do you begin to answer such “big lies”?


Trapped in their Palestinian Masada, besieged by the Israeli Romans, some Palestinians give their lives meaning only through an act of murderous nihilism. To blame this on the pathetic, authoritarian and corrupt Arafat is foolish and disingenuous. Arafat has control over nothing. The Israelis have deliberately targeted his police forces, his jails, his entire government, and effectively wiped out the Palestinian Authority, only to punish the Palestinian leaders for not controlling the terrorists in their ranks. This intifada was as much a rebellion against Arafat’s rule as it was against the Israelis. His popularity with the Palestinians was only restored when Israel made a hero out of him by imprisoning him.


The Palestinians are not above reproach. No conflict is black and white, good versus evil. If the Israelis were ever to withdraw from the occupied territories, the Palestinians, as well as the rest of the Arab world would have to begin a process of introspection and cease placing all the blame for their poverty, ignorance, lack of achievement and lack of freedom on external factors. But how can the Palestinians engage in any sort of intellectual process while they are being starved and slaughtered?


I asked a Palestinian friend of mine to respond to an article from USA Today that portrayed all Palestinians as supporters of suicide bombers and quoted a father’s words of pride over his son’s suicide mission. I asked him if the father could really mean it? My friend, whose father is a prominent Palestinian politician under siege in Ramallah, responded, “Personally for me it's different. You are still searching for an answer, an argument. You have to, as the liberal you are. You see, for me it is this article and its racist mentality that drove the suicide bomber. There is a direct relationship between the damage caused by this fascist journalist and the blood of the next Israeli to die in a suicide bombing. I unfortunately am beyond arguments, because no argument will work. If we Palestinians are to succeed in achieving our rights, it is only by being more barbaric than our enemy, on a consistent, i.e. daily, weekly basis. It is sad, and by all means you can and should disagree. The worst thing is that a whole country has lied to itself and believes this crap, they are not willing for one second to dwell on the reasons and the feelings that led to this horrible act. When it comes to Jewish feelings, from the holocaust on, they spare no argument. This is massive racism that they will not acknowledge. At least in South Africa they legitimized their racism. No the father doesn't mean it, the father is so shocked deep down to his core, that the pain he tried to hide from his child was even bigger in his son. He is not proud of killing young girls, no, he is proud that his son had the courage to end his miserable, painful life, by at least striking at (what appears to be the cause) the Israelis, instead of continuing to live in pain and humiliation.”


It was the Racak massacre of several dozen men of fighting age by the Serbs that provoked the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Now, before the whole world, Israeli buries Palestinians in mass graves, stores their corpses in refrigerator trucks, bulldozes over their bodies, places hundreds and possibly thousands of them in concentration camps where they are tortured and makes all of the occupied territories one giant Sarajevo. And nobody does anything!


I heard Condoleeza Rice on Meet the Press yesterday, prattling about Ehud Barak’s “generous” offer that Arafat refused. This myth must be destroyed. It is not generous to do justice, it is not generous to stop denying people freedom, it is not generous to end a 34-year military occupation. Moreover, the offer denied any possibility of a viable state, since it gave all control over air, sea, borders and resources to the Israelis and it divided the Palestinian areas into hundreds of segments, cut off from one another, obviating any possibility of a Palestinian state that could function economically or politically


This and other myths must be combated. The Israelis are now engaged in “hasbara,” which literally means explanation, but actually means propaganda. They have the handsome and eloquent Benjamin Netanyahu speaking on their behalf. The Palestinians have only buffoons arguing for them. I see the propaganda effects on my parents, who tell me that “they” (the Palestinians) do not want peace, they all support the suicide bombers, Arabs only understand force, if “we” withdraw they will see it as weakness and continue their attacks, they want to throw us all into the sea, and so on. And they point to the other Arabs and remind me that their regimes are all brutal and corrupt, and that they never cared for their Palestinian brethren. It is this “we” and “them” mentality that precludes objectivity. My parents, like Israelis, and Serbs before them, fear the collective guilt, fear the admission that their soldiers have committed crimes against humanity, so they divert every argument to the Arab crimes. There are Arab crimes, and they should be addressed, but they do not diminish the severity of the Israeli crimes. A crime is a crime.


Does Israel really want to place itself in the category of countries like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iraq, where the concepts of human rights or freedom are not even given lip service by the regimes, or does it seek to belong to the community of enlightened nations that exist to secure the rights of their citizens? At least Israel has the political and intellectual infrastructure to belong to the second category, if it ever remedies the racism in its culture and the horrible contradiction of its continuous occupation of an entire nation. And because it is a democracy, Israel deserves particular reproach, because its citizens are accountable for the actions of their leaders.


The sanctions that cripple Iraq and starve its people do nothing to the dictator whom they did not choose and cannot remove. Israelis on the other hand chose the war criminal that leads them, voted for the bloody policies of their government, and half of them support the “transfer” (the Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians from the occupied territories. So I find myself in the unique and painful position of calling for international sanctions against Israel and wondering if a punitive bombing of Tel Aviv, the city I love, until it complies with international law, might be a good (albeit quixotic) idea.


“No,” my father says, “we are not part of Europe. We are in the Middle East, in the Arab world, and we should not pretend that we are different, we have to be more brutal than they are or they will never respect us.”


Is this a solution?


A Palestinian friend of mine expressed consternation at the deliberations over a solution. To both of us, it seemed so simple. “Just get out of the occupied territories,” he said. What of my father’s fear that the attacks would not cease with an Israeli withdrawal?


My friend was cautious and uncertain. Resentment is growing among the Palestinians, if Israel does not withdraw soon, the hate and thirst for revenge might preclude any possibility of reconciliation and peace.


Nir Rosen, 25, is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.