In 1986, at age 16, standing near Ben Yehuda’s pedestrian mall, I swayed to Naomi Shemer’s famous 1967 song, “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) with other young Zionists in Jerusalem on an eight-week high school program. The song was being played on a boombox, and I sang along with other American Jews who had, like me, fallen in love with the city. Rather than hold a lighter up to the music, we held each other’s waists–a little extra squeeze for those we had crushes on–in love with Jerusalem and seemingly with each other, too, as our hips moved to the music, our feet firmly planted on the limestone street.
Shemer’s famous ballad, commissioned by the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Teddy Kollek, was first sung at an Israeli Song Festival the night after Israel’s independence day on May 15, 1967, just three weeks before Israel’s Six-Day War. After the war, Shemer added a final verse, and the song became a nationalistic war-cry of the Israel Defense Forces–a celebration of Jerusalem’s reunification–when Israel took the Old City and East Jerusalem. “The shofar calls on the Temple Mount in the Old City,” the last verse reads.
The shofar also calls on Jews this week and next, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to hear the blast of the ram’s horn, stirring us to repentance and reflection.
But Israel has not repented or reflected on its actions. 2018 has seen even more iterations of Israel’s nationalistic war-cry: the Trump administration’s recent decision to cut more than 200 million dollars in aid for Palestinian refugees, the new nation-state law passed by the Knesset in July that declares Israel the home of the Jewish people, and the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem in May, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Israeli statehood.
Of course, the entire notion of Israel has been a nationalistic war-cry–its ongoing occupation, colonization, and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. As the scholar Ilan Pappe has stated many times, Israel’s goal since the 1882 First Zionist Congress was, and still is, “to have as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians as possible.”
But Zionist teenagers don’t think about this, not when they’re singing songs written for them, standing on polished limestone built for them, participating in summer programs planned for them, and when they’re developing a kind of imposed nostalgia all cleverly devised and formulated by adults who hold the same love in their hearts for the tiny country they’ve been told–and continue to believe–is theirs.
No one questioned Israel’s policies towards Palestinians when I was on the eight-week summer program in 1986. If the word Palestine ever came up, it was only in reference to pre-1948 Palestine. In our young minds, there simply was no such thing as Palestine or Palestinians. There were Arabs, but our minds didn’t think about where they lived or why they were there. We talked about Israel as a miracle that had defied the odds against it. Mostly, we talked about love. In a postcard I sent to my parents in Chicago that summer in 1986, I wrote about Jerusalem’s beauty.
“Postcards just don’t do this city justice,” I wrote. “The golden hue everywhere makes me feel that I’ve come home.”
This past summer, several young Birthright participants did reflect and question Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. They left the free trip for Jews 26-and-under because they disagreed with Birthright’s Zionist propaganda. The first group walked off and joined former Israeli soldiers from Breaking the Silence. A couple weeks later, another group walked away. That these young Jews called attention to the propaganda and subsequent defensiveness of the Birthright organization shows a growing fissure in liberal Zionism, a breach in the mythology that has, at times, seemed impenetrable within the Jewish community. It was for me, when I was 16.
One could argue that not much was at stake for the Birthright participants who left. By walking off the tour, they risked having to buy their plane tickets home, but they created a GoFundMe page that covered the costs. Some said they would be sued by Birthright for leaving the trip, but Birthright denies this. They also had the inherent privilege, as Jews, to take the trip in the first place and tour the country. But their speaking out also rattled Birthright and the Jewish community, and it’s made the hypocrisy of liberal Zionism more visible. It’s also made me question why the young Birthright participants protested on their summer trip and why I and others, at age 16, remained silent.
On the same summer trip in 1986, several of us sang Shemer’s song spontaneously on top of Masada after hiking up the mountain at sunrise, as so many other Zionist Jews had done before us. We felt like we were the first, naturally, as we chanted the lyrics, “If I forget thee / golden city / Jerusalem of gold…” while the sun threw gold and pink and orange streaks across the sky. A few of us ran off as others carried the tune, and we made out, pressed up against the stone ruins of the mass suicide we had learned about. In between our kisses, leaning on the ancient rock, we whispered, “If I forget thee…,” unclear at the time if these words were meant for each other, or for our beloved golden Jerusalem. I can’t remember the name of the guy I made out with on that summer trip on top of Masada, but I still have etched into my memory every nook and crevice of Jerusalem that I stepped on and played in when I was 16.
This was always Israel’s plan, of course, to get young Zionists like me to fall in love unconditionally with the tiny country. And Israel and its lobby efforts succeeded; we fell in line like good soldiers. We were invested in what we believed was a radicalism of liberal Zionism. We were to donate money, plant trees, buy homes, visit often, shop in the shuk for gifts like earrings and scarves that Arabs made (we were liberals, after all, and had a sense of the “local” people). We would give hand jobs in Bedouin tents when we were teens on Zionist summer programs, perhaps lose our virginity in the holy land, and later, marry a Jew, have kids, and hope for the same things for our Jewish children.
Loving Israel came easy to me. It was effortless, uncomplicated, unconditional, different from loving any other country in the world. My non-Jewish friends who professed their love for America, for example, loved it in a way that was different from the way that I loved Israel. They couldn’t understand my feelings. “You just don’t get it,” I’d tell them, “Israel is the only country in the world you ascend to,” referring to the Hebrew word, aliyah, which means “to go up.” In response, they asked why I talked about Israel like it was my lover. I scoffed at them, though they were right. Another postcard I sent to my parents in 1986 did sound as though Jerusalem and I were in love. “Jerusalem and I are getting along just fine!” I wrote. It was so much more than simply loving one’s country, and you could only understand if you, too, were Zionist and Jewish.
One time in high school, when I was eating a bag of tortilla chips with some non-Jewish friends, I swore I saw the outline of Israel in the broken chips. Pointed on the top with a small slope scooped out on the upper left (Haifa to Tel-Aviv), then swelled a bit (Jerusalem) in the middle, and coming to a longer point on the bottom (Eilat); I didn’t dare tell them. I kept it to myself and ate the chips, imagining the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River on either side of the little chip as I chewed and swallowed. I couldn’t get Israel inside my body fast enough. I was no different, really, from young, devout Catholics we Jews made fun of, chewing and swallowing a communion wafer in church, ingesting the body and blood of Christ. In high school math class, I doodled little outlines of the Israeli state in my notebook. Bored but also trying to pay attention, I’d write the algebra equation we were instructed to copy down, and then draw the country around it.
My connection to Israel provided me with a direct line to the beginning of the world, unlike Russia and Romania, where my great-grandparents were from. We had no family in Israel (except, perhaps, an aunt who escaped the Holocaust, my mother once told me, but this was never confirmed). That I was from these European countries didn’t mean anything to me. Our link was under a hundred years old; Israel and I had been bonded for thousands. And we fused our emotional and national love into one of person and place, of body and nation. That I loved Israel so fiercely was an entire way of being, the heart of how I functioned in the world. It was the center of everything for me, like the sun to the solar system.
Of course, like other upper middle-class liberal Zionists, I did do other things than just pine for Israel. We took pride in our ability to selectively assimilate. Many of us who grew up in the north shore suburbs of Chicago and attended large public schools had many gentile friends. We went to giant keg parties in huge homes on Lake Michigan when parents were out of town–not unlike the party house portrayed in the film Sixteen Candles. We played sports and took pottery classes and had part-time jobs–mine was at Kosher City, the local butcher in Skokie–and volunteered at homeless shelters and went to art museums on the weekends and traveled to other countries with our families.
But when we liberal Zionists hung out together, when it was just us, we felt as though we were home, for it was with each other we could talk about how much we loved Israel without judgment from gentiles who didn’t get it. We Zionists simply had so many shared experiences about Israel. When we weren’t physically in the country, we reminisced and told stories, like the one about Abu Yusef, the Arab–we didn’t call him a Palestinian, though he was, and had lived in Palestine longer than any of us could have ever imagined–who made cheese toasts in pita bread at the campus of the high school program we attended. “Yes, yes, coming,” he’d say, sweating, as we’d patronize him by tipping him an extra shekel while he rushed to satisfy us, the melted cheese dripping down our chins as we ate. Or Elan, the hot soldier many of us wanted to make out with who only made out with Jackie, who annoyed us anyway, because she was so pretty. Or Shlomo, the bald tour guide who protected us on the bus with his M16, and the funny way he’d get mad trying to get us to shut up, his M16 rattling against his thigh, as he told us Israel’s one-sided history from the comfort of air-conditioning.
Now, decades later, when I think about Shlomo, I also think about one of the leaders on the Birthright trip this past summer who called himself a teacher. “Just go. Go to Palestine,” he told the women who left the trip.“Because guess what’s going to happen. You will get killed. You will get raped.” The vitriol with which the Birthright “teacher” spoke of Palestinians was absent on my trip in 1986. Perhaps Shlomo would have talked the same way, had he been challenged by one of us. But none of us would dispute anything we learned on that trip. We were all in an infatuated fugue state, seeing the land through the same Zionist rose-colored glasses.
Our stories–these shared experiences–became a series of rituals that were conceived in these small universes of liberal Zionist utopianism, a kind of bonding that took place on tour buses, campuses, pedestrian malls–all on top of Israeli land we knew was ours. We liked ourselves better when we experienced these things together. We were living our lives for ourselves, sure, but also for each other, and ultimately, for something so much larger than us. And this symbiotic love made us feel both selfless and self-aware, deepening with each return.
We were taught at an early age to think critically, to question the status quo, interrogate ideas and challenge each other, but we were, at the same time, trained to block out any hint of possible dissent. We knew–intuitively, perhaps, without language–never to question Israel’s motives. And my parents, the very people who taught me to think critically, would never forgive me when I applied these questioning skills to Israel. When I did, it was as though I turned on them like a zombie eating their flesh–the very flesh that had created me.
The young Birthright participants who left their trip walked away despite being with a group of Jews who were building their own shared experiences, solidifying their bond with each other and their mutual love for Israel. These Birthright participants have begun to question Israel’s policies at a much younger age than I did. They have preceded me by decades and will have the chance to dismantle Zionism longer.
This growing crack within liberal Zionism is a sign that the mythology is falling apart, the shared stories are unraveling, the inherent hypocrisy is becoming more glaring. Liberal Zionism always sits on top of the occupation, on top of all of Palestine, with or without the blasts of the ram’s horn demanding us to pay attention. We just don’t want to see it.