A few years ago, I hitched a ride to a Washington, D.C., journalism conference with a writer then living in Baltimore and his wife. We exchanged small talk about our families and hometowns, and I mentioned I had two siblings in Philadelphia and one in Israel. At this news, his wife’s face turned sour. “What is your sister doing there?”
I replied that she was running a business and raising a family. But she pressed. “Where does she live?” (Jerusalem.) “Does she support the horrible government there?” (No.) “Is she Orthodox?” (No.) “Do you support the horrible government there?” (Again, no.)
If my sister lived in France, this journalist’s wife wouldn’t have asked me to defend Emmanuel Macron. She wouldn’t have asked if my sister was religious, or my feelings about the government there.
Such is the predicament of liberal diaspora Jews like me. Strangers ask us to defend a country where we do not live and the policies of a regime we did not vote for and would never endorse simply because we are Jewish. Liberal secular Jews have long railed against Netanyahu’s corruption and the injustices against the Palestinian people, who we believe have a right to their own democratic state on the West Bank lands. And yet, when terrorists from Gaza rape and murder innocent civilians, we are just supposed to sit and take it when our progressive friends justify the behavior because of what they refer to as Israel’s apartheid system.
Israel is a legitimate country, no different from France in its sovereignty. Israel hasn’t controlled Gaza since 2005, when Hamas took power. Moreover, the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Israelis dancing at a concert or sleeping in their beds has nothing to do with plans for a Palestinian state. Hamas didn’t ask for that, has not been part of the negotiations for that, and is on record stating they want to push the Jewish people out of Israel and into the sea. If a group of Americans after 9/11 expressed sympathy for Mohamed Atta, we would be appalled.
And yet, some Americans nod along with this nonsense, or worse, are complicit in sharing it. They include our best and brightest: Dozens of student groups at Harvard signed letters condemning Israel for the massacre of its own people; scores of Stanford students hung bedsheets with slogans like “the illusion of Israel is burning”; and the leaders of the National Women’s Studies Association expressed sympathy and offered feminist resources for the suffering Palestinians but said not a word about Hamas or Israeli deaths, but instead blamed the violence on Israel and the U.S. support it receives.
Despite the fact that the door-to-door massacre of Israeli children on sovereign Israeli land has nothing to do with the peace process or the plight of Palestinians, I have non-Jewish friends who tried to draw the connection. The fact that some are journalists who once ran newsrooms made their posts on social media all the more painful to read.
“I’d like American journalists to report this story for what it really is: both sides are not blameless. Both sides, principally Israel, must set aside decades of hate and work for peace,” wrote one former managing editor of a major news operation.
Another, a former Baltimore Sun editor, questioned whether the “beheaded babies” she was hearing about were real. “Journalists accepting this as real with so little info in the middle of a war — I’m having trouble with that,” she said, despite reports to Israeli and U.S. officials that beheadings occurred. And do we even need proof of decapitated babies to drive home the horror? Is indiscriminate murder not enough?
A third wrote: “I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling deeply conflicted over the Israeli conflict. On the one hand, what Hamas has done is beyond barbaric. … On the other hand, Israel’s depredations against the Palestinians are real.”
Imagine hearing the same kinds of arguments if terrorists stormed M&T Bank Stadium and slaughtered revelers. You wouldn’t. Is that because Jewish lives are not valued, that the world sees us as expendable? It wouldn’t be the first time. The Jewish state came to be because Adolf Hitler and the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews. The United States left us to die on the high seas, refusing to take in ships filled with refugees; they returned to Germany and Poland, where Nazis murdered them. Canada said, “none is too many,” letting in only a few thousand of the millions who wanted to come.
Today’s Israelis are the descendants of those survivors. My grandmother’s cousin was liberated from Auschwitz; he settled outside Tel Aviv and ran a bodega. His children earned university degrees and started their own families. Like my sister, they are not involved in Israeli politics, and they do not occupy anyone’s land.
Perhaps those who have not visited Israel have a vision of a country under siege, or one in lockstep with its corrupt leader. But the Israel I know, and the Israelis, are nothing like that. They are brilliant scientists and talented chefs, innovative entrepreneurs and indefatigable travelers. They enjoy life. And many of them have fought, tirelessly, both to secure their borders and to bring about a better life for their Palestinian neighbors. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested in the streets in recent months, both against the occupation and against Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine democracy.
As for Gazans, they do not deserve the horror soon to be inflicted upon them as Israel carries out retaliation against Hamas. Those who perished at the kibbutzim in Israel would not have wanted that. Those who survived are telling us so in Hebrew testimonials all over social media.
Revenge is Netanyahu’s idea. A much better one would be to meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and forge a peace agreement to show Hamas that terrorism will not derail the dream of two states, side by side. The Palestinians and Israeli Arabs I interviewed as a reporter in Israel in 1992 never stopped hoping for that. If they are still alive, I am sure that they, too, are grieving the deaths of innocent Jewish people.
After the terrorist attacks, the extended family of world Jewry took to WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram to contact loved ones in Israel. In a country of 7 million people, many of us are two or three degrees of separation from a person who was taken hostage or murdered. We listen to the names on NPR and CNN and hope one of them is not our cousin. Many of us have visited these kibbutzim and these cities. We are hurting.
I wish, as I have since I first visited Israel as a young adult 35 years ago, that reasonable leaders can find a way to an equitable peace and refrain from vengeful acts and retaliatory strikes that worsen the lives of everyone involved. But I now also wish that our progressive friends would understand that our Jewishness makes us no less human. We are grieving the deaths in our family, and the loss of those we thought were our friends. And we are most definitely not OK.
Rona Kobell is an environmental reporter in Baltimore. She was a student at Hebrew University in1992-93 and a reporter at The Jerusalem Post.