Joyless in Zion

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I never went to Israel when I was young, but I had a girlfriend who had been there and she told me that the Israelis were tough. She’d had fun there: she slept on beaches and smoked dope and made a lot of friends. But the Israelis were much tougher than we were, she said both admiringly and wearily. It wasn’t just their famous rudeness but their view of life; it was hard to be around them.

Now I’m back from my 13th trip to Israel and I can say, they are too tough.

I’ve been visiting through a distinct period: Israeli violence against non-state actors, Lebanon 2006 to Gaza 2018. Israel has regularly meted out violent punishment to those who defy or provoke it or shoot rockets or don’t believe in its right to exist, five bouts of punishment, six counting the era of knife attacks. It doesn’t seem that Israel has gained anything from all that violence, the thousands or tens of thousands dead. The Israelis are more insecure than ever. When you travel through occupied territory on Route 443, the Israeli flagwaving doesn’t stop. The Palestinian cabdriver said the flag was a Big Lie: it informs the Palestinians that this is Israel when it’s not. It is the same imposture at the police station in East Jerusalem: a lot of flags and a star of David, symbols that the people who are served by the station all disdain.

Or look at the banners on the Ministry of Justice, again in Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem. The Israelis are not sure themselves that they are going to be around that long. Ahmadinejad got into their heads when he said, they will vanish from the page of time. Netanyahu’s keen desire, Joseph Massad writes in Electronic Intifada, is that Israel will be around another 30 years: “the Hasmonean kingdom survived for only about 80 years[in the second century BC],” and so he is “working to ensure that modern Israel will surpass that mark and reach its 100th birthday.”

That’s not very confident.

Israeli flags on district court in East Jerusalem, occupied Palestinian territory. May 13, 2018. Photo by Scott Roth.




The New York Times did a piece suggesting that Israelis have a conscience about the violence they poured forth at the Gaza border, and they hope that it was the right thing to do. But Gideon Levy says they have lost their conscience; and that was my impression too from interviewing Israeli Jews in West Jerusalem. I talked to 20 people. Every one expressed support for the killings. There was simply no dissent, even from a Meretz supporter.

I asked why Israel was getting such bad press over the shootings; and here are some responses:

“On whose head is the blood in Gaza? 100 percent on the leftwing media that hates Israel, and is Arab owned. Hamas used their own population as  a defensive shield.” (Avraham Feld, 65)

“We behaved very, very gentle with them. It doesn’t look gentle. But out of 40,000, 60 [dead] is not many. If it wasn’t gentle, we would kill a few 100s.” (Rami, a shopowner.)

“Our problem in Israel is a very, very small group of Jews. But they have the microphone and they hate themselves. They talk against us. And that’s why those in America– they don’t like Israel. For 1000 years we are used to it– people who are against Israel and the Jews.” (Nehama, 47.)

“I think there was no other option. Just to watch and allow people passing through the fence? The problem [with the headlines]– it’s a question of hasbara.”  (Moshe Ardon, 66, Meretz).

“These are not peaceful people. If 20 percent have a flag, then 10 behind them have a gun.” (A man from Kibbutz Ruhana, not far from Gaza).

“We Israelis have a clear system when someone threatens to come to the fence. First a warning shot, then if he keeps coming, we shoot in the leg. If they do come more, we have to shoot him.” (Shmuel, 14, walking with his mother)

There is no debate. Just like Gaza 2014 and Cast Lead before that nine years ago: 90 percent of Israeli society is behind it. The people all echo the talking points and insulate themselves from world opinion. This is the way a cult works, enclosing its thinking from the outside world, including the large portion of the neighboring population who don’t buy what they say. The world’s condemnation only makes them feel more certain of their own righteousness and, surely too, their superiority to ordinary unenlightened people. They become more hardened, and self-involved.



The time my girlfriend went out, 40 years ago, Zionism was fun. Not for its victims of course. But it was the time when Israel figured for Americans, and American Jews, like such a good healthy idealistic fulfilling life-charged undertaking. You’ve seen the newsreels of the Zionists dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, or in the dusty roads of their kibbutzim: that excitement was communicated to us. Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and Tony Judt all went over to work on kibbutzes in that spirit. People read Amos Oz novels about the Galilee.

Look at these photographs of Zionists celebrating the harvest in Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz not far from Gaza that I visited on Nakba Day. Grapes bow their shoulders. They dance as the combine sucks up grain…

Photo of celebrating the harvest, in a display case at Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz near Gaza.


Photo of grape harvest, in a display case at Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz near Gaza.

That time is over. Now Israel is held in contempt by much of the western world, and Israelis know it even as they get down to the hard business of shooting border-crossers.



My host at an Airbnb in West Jerusalem confronted me for my views. We’d been friendly for two days, I kept praising her sparkling clean apartment; but she brought up my work and upbraided me– her guest, twice her age–  and told me what I should not write, and accused me of BDS, and called me a self hating Jew. I was upset and wrote a lot of it down:

“So you write bad things about Israel. Like what, you are for BDS?

“What do you want us to do? So–what should we do?

“But we are a democracy. You don’t have the whole picture. You shouldn’t be writing these things about us without knowing what is going on.

“You are going to compare us to the Nazis next, aren’t you? [I’d compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to her parents’ experience in Russia]

“This is our land. We are a people like any other, not a religion. It is different, and we need a state.

“No, the Palestinians are not happy, but that is their leaders’ fault. They’ve never accepted the Jewish state. Then they bombed us in the second intifada.

“You don’t have the full picture so you should not write about this. I think you are this way because you don’t like being Jewish. There are Jews who are like this.”



My next host was just as tough in his own way. He was in the kitchen after work, guiding religious Zionist tours of the Old City, when I asked him, “What is the strategy in Gaza?” His wife sighed. “Oh the people are suffering there, it is very bad in Gaza.” But he sprawled out in his armchair in a crude manner familiar to me from Israeli men, with one knee up and the other leg extended, and rubbed his scalp in a gesture of thoughtfulness.

“In Gaza you are seeing what we Israelis call – [he says the Hebrew phrase] — conflict management. No one knows how to end it so they manage it. Yesterday was a bloody day as you know [the day of 62 killed] but today was quiet. That is because the message has been sent that if they do more today, then Israel will respond, very hard, and there will be more loss of life, so they pull back. Everyone knows there could be another war, and they don’t want that.”

A young man says that killing 62 people is sending a message…

This is a big reason why American Jewish communal responses are so terrible. Jewish leaders have lots of Israeli friends who hold forth to them in such terms, as though this is a real strategy; and the Americans are at a loss to criticize.

As my mother’s best friend Golda told me when I first came out here, at age 50: Aliyah means to go up. “When we moved here [in 1968], we went up. You in the Diaspora we call yoredim. You are lower.” That is the essential relationship, and all the big American Jewish orgs have no problem with that.



One of the most striking things about this visit was how naked the apartheid is. Back in the States of course it is still a heresy to say that Israel is an apartheid country. But when you are over there it feels frank and unadorned. Everyone knows there is one sovereign between the river and the sea, and that sovereign must be Jewish. Here’s my list of evidence:

–Arriving at the Tel Aviv airport, I mill about with a couple thousand other arrivals over the 40 minutes it takes to exit, and I see just a handful of Arabs. The Massachusetts-sized country I’m coming into is half Arab, there are Arab lands all around. But these people are obviously not wanted here, are often subject to searches here. And the walls contain messages that exclude them. They avoid the place.

Ben Gurion airport, May 2018. Zionism is an infinite ideal.

–Israeli forces shut down Damascus Gate on the night before Nakba Day, May 14. They are only letting some people through. A group of women in hijabs waits. I come up and the guards wave me right through. I am the correct race.

–At a demonstration against the new embassy earlier that day, several different protests were sequestered in a free speech area: notably a bunch of young mostly American Jews called All That’s Left, and a lot of Palestinian demonstrators, including legislators, waving Palestinian flags. For more than an hour the police dose out brutality against the Palestinian demonstrators for holding up Palestinian flags and chanting for the liberation of Palestine. They ignore the Jews, whose messages are chiefly about occupation.

–The two principal peoples of the land are segregated, and there is complete separation in consciousness. In the Israeli neighborhoods of West Jerusalem you see very few Palestinians. And of course the opposite goes for Palestine. “If I go into an Arab village, even inside Israel, they will kill me– make me into pieces,” Rami, the storekeeper wearing a kipa, explains earnestly to me. On May 14, the night of 62 slaughtered at the fence in Gaza, I walked to a restaurant in the German Colony on the foot/bike-path on the old train line. I heard an Israeli-American discussing new robotic technology to his son and two men discussing international media. The restaurant was full of chatter and laughter. It goes without saying that the Palestinians I talked to that day and the next were filled with anguish and sorrow, and had one subject.

–The Palestinian taxi drivers I met speak Hebrew. It’s required in schools. One’s son studies at the Hebrew University. No Israeli I met speaks Arabic. I’m told the amount of Arabic in Israeli schools is derisory. Everyone knows what the master tongue is.

–Israelis I interviewed said that they preferred a Jewish state to a democracy where Palestinians could vote. “No, they must not vote. I don’t know how many citizens of Falastin want to kill us. They would make an Arab anti-semitic prime minister. And this is the only Jewish country in the world.”—Rami, who votes Likud. And a middleaged Labor voter from Hadera who’d come to visit the Sderot lookout over Gaza says the same thing. “We can’t have majority Arabs. The problem is Hamas sends people to the fence with an ideology, Palestine is from the river to the sea, and there should be no Jewish state.” Liberal Zionists in America like to say that Israel will face a choice between being Jewish and a democracy. But Israel long ago made that choice, and took the Jewish part, not the democracy.

It is amazing that such a naked system of inequality is so successfully defended in the United States. But it is. I’ve often referred to Wolf Blitzer and Terry Gross shaming Jimmy Carter in 2006 for using the word apartheid in the title of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter was ostracized from the Democratic Party, too, for saying that. Then you go there and it’s apartheid without any pretense.

Now and then the truth breaks through back home – when Stephen Robert the former chancellor of Brown wrote in The Nation that Israel is “apartheid on steroids.” Or when Palestinians speak. But it’s still rare. More often it’s David Brooks writing in the New York Times that he gets “gooey eyed” about Israel having been out a dozen times.

That’s the real miracle of Israel: the hasbara, rationalizing this situation to the west.



The American Jews at the anti-embassy rally were much more involved emotionally with Palestinians and the Palestinian story than my Israeli hosts. But those American Jews were nothing like the Palestinian demonstrators. They needed to separate themselves from the Palestinians as the Palestinians chanted “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”

The American have so much less at stake than the Palestinians. Look at this Palestinian woman covering her face as she protests. She has a lot to lose. The American Jews seem very entitled by comparison, and of course: We are.

Palestinian protester covering her face as she leads chants near US embassy, May 14, 2018.

But the Palestinian suffering this time has had a political effect on American Jews. Natalie Portman acted because of Palestinians being shot at the fence. Jeffrey Goldberg needed to distance himself. Writer/professor Emily Bazelon was moved by her son’s anger at the killings. “Came home and my 15 year old was on the phone with his senators asking them to condemn Israel’s actions. My main feeling: he’s expressing his Jewish values. What a terribly sad day.”

Losing Goldberg (which I’ve predicted) means there will be more defections to come. The firewall doesn’t work if it’s just Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss and Shmuel Rosner, with help from Tom Friedman. You need a powerful center. But Eric Alterman has misgivings about Israel, Eric Goldstein of the Jewish Federations can’t full-throatedly defend it anymore, and J Street is even losing a little faith.

Young Jewish journalists will be emboldened, to follow the Max Blumenthal path. I know how journalists behave. The essence of mainstream journalism (and maybe of all social interaction!) is self-censorship. Now journalists see that there are career points to be made by being critical. Natalie Portman hasn’t turned into fairy dust; and they want to show that they are as smart as a pretty actress. They see Peter Beinart (who is actually halfway honest) being more and more outspoken on the question, maybe because he also wants to keep up with Portman. They see Michelle Goldberg getting more vocal, and more and more American scholars coming out for one state. Because as everyone knows who has been there, it is the reality, one state, with apartheid.

Secretly these journalists have always agreed with Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah, there is a problem with a Jewish state, the two-state solution as imagined is a form of apartheid; but they don’t want to be crazy outliers, they want to be sure that the Dershowitz/Oren/Foxman sharks aren’t still in the water. Now they begin to think that they can have a great success by turning against Israel. And that they can express these thoughts without losing work.

Older Jews are surely afraid what will happen when the young turn on Israel entirely and say, Where were you when they were killing unarmed protesters? During the last Israeli slaughter, 2014, Emily Bazelon supported the Israeli actions against Gaza that killed 2200, and acknowledged then that American Jews and Israeli Jews are family, cousins or brothers and sisters, and need to look out for one another. She aligned herself with centrist Zionists, Yossi Klein Halevi, Jonathan Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg. But that Jewish consensus is now shattered, and Bazelon is listening to her son.



Going out there gets harder and harder. The Israelis have a high standard of living, but what are they living for? Ideals that it is hard to justify in this day and age. The Israeli Jews have lost touch with the tender filaments of human connection. Of course their relations with the Palestinians have done this to them. You cannot watch thousands of unarmed young people being shot at the Gaza border and approve it heartily without having blocked off some avenues of the soul.

I worried about my mind when I was there. The rates of depression in Palestine are incredible, pushing 40 percent, four or five times normal rates. But the Israelis are as bad off mentally in their own way as the Palestinians, or worse. They know their indifference to others’ opinions cannot last. On the day I stopped people in West Jerusalem to ask about Gaza, 20 people refused to talk. They frowned and shook their heads. They knew that the world won’t understand them, and they walked hurriedly by.

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Supremacism is hateful and immoral work and it requires hateful and immoral people to do it, justify it, support it and defend it.

Zionist were wrong to assume that as long as Jews were the ones doing terrorism, ethnic cleansing, land theft, military occupation, colonialism, oppression, torture and murder it could never stop being fun.

Aggressor-victimhood is such a tough gig…   :-(

Thanks for the article Philip. A couple things: 1. When you say Israelis have a high standard of living, are we talking about Israeli Jews? Arabs in that area have high poverty rates. 2. Jeffery Goldberg and Emily Bazelon didn’t really backtrack as much as declare the state of circumstances between the US Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community. Being a decent human being isn’t just a Jewish value as Emily states. It’s a… Read more »

Oh Phil, what a sad, sad rendering of your recent trip–thank you for being so thoughtful in writing your account.

phil pray (sic) continue please the difficult track been being enlightened/edumacated by yer site fer a while now my frame of reference is the rabbit proof fence a movie yer might’ve seen it a phil noyce piece about indigenous humans, classified at the time as not people but as part of the country’s flora and fauna ……… tracked, hunted, shot, poisoned ………. annie mike k cigar god joe tedesky abe realist just pray (sic) continue… Read more »

RE: “Or look at the banners on the Ministry of Justice, again in Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem.” ~ Weiss


■ Ministry of Justice

■ Photo from 1938