Paradise Lost — The Ashkenazi-Mizrachi Fault Line

Kibbutz Heftzibah, circa 1970

My childhood village is so far away these days, yet I never really left it. I’ve been aware of this notion, this conundrum for a long time, yet the stories about ‘The Battle Over the Hassi Stream’ between the residents of the city of Beit She’an and the members of kibbutz Nir David—and the beautiful pictures from the ‘Valley of the Springs’ that are decorated these stories—keep driving this point home again and again. This new battle, as if on purpose, seems determined to reopen old wounds and make them fresh once more.

It so happened that in 2012 I published a short story titled, ‘The Kibbutz is Burning’—originally titled ‘The Battle Over the Dining Room’—in which young people from Beit She’an invade my kibbutz, set it on fire, and engage in a life-and-death battle with kibbutz members over the kibbutz’s dining room. And while the protagonist of the story (see under: ‘The Kibbutz is Burning’ on my literary website) is my late father, David—a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, a salt-of-the-earth kind of a person who escaped three labor camps during that war, and a veteran member of that kibbutz—the heart of the story is pounding on the fault line dividing the haves and the have-nots, and the deep yearning to go back to the old ‘values’ that had built the kibbutz.

A kibbutz modeled on the one where I was born and grew up, Hephzibah, which in the glorious pictures of Nir David, with the aquamarine stream running through it, you can actually see on the other side of Gan Hashlosha—or the ‘Sachne’ as we called it back then—nestled under Mount Gilboa. Growing up we didn’t know it belonged to kibbutz Nir David. It belonged to us, all of us, courtesy of mother nature. As kids, we used to walk there barefooted. Swim there day or night, without a care in the world. Only later came gates, fences, guards, paved roads, showers, and restrooms. The magic was gone. Or almost gone.

Which brings me to the current situation in kibbutz Nir David, and the battle over access to the Hassi Stream. I have no idea how to resolve this intractable situation, this clash of wills, though one solution that was suggested in 2015— “to set aside a section of the stream for public use”—seems to me to be taking the right approach needed for a reasonable, decent compromise. However, as reported in The Times Of Israel, it “is still stuck in the planning system.” Wouldn’t you know that?

Strangely, it reminds me of a different kind of clash, here in America, between President Trump and the renowned journalist Bob Woodward. In his latest book, ‘Rage,’ and in an interview Woodward gave recently to ‘CBS 60 Minutes,’ he said he asked the president, “… do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it put me – and I think lots of White, privileged people… we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country?”

President Trump—again, wouldn’t you know that?—responded mockingly, “You, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”

That, indeed, is the problem with some privileged, have-it-all people. For them, it’s my way or the highway. Not only do they lack the capacity to understand the other side, but they also don’t seem to care to understand it at all. It may be—in America as in Israel—that it’s not exactly, or simply ‘justice’ that the under-privileged, the have-nots are asking for but ‘understanding.’ After all, in the case of the citizens of Beit She’an—or the larger population of what used to be called the ‘second-Israel’—what does ‘justice’ really mean?

Certainly not the dislodging, the uprooting of the kibbutz and its members away from the beautiful place they have worked so hard to build and give it to them instead; or as is the case with the Sachne, make a national park out of the kibbutz. Just as in the case of the African-American population of America, what would ‘justice’ be for them? Returning to Africa (as few now do)? Reversing the turning of the wheel-of-history? Give reparations—how much, really?—for descendants of those who died many years ago? (In Germany’s case, reparations are for surviving Jews who were directly affected by the Holocaust.) Take the white people’s money and places away and hand it to them?

No. That’s not justice. That’s more like injustice. What they are looking for, I believe—both in Israel and in America—is understanding. Inclusion. Sharing. Collaborating. Acknowledgment of past grave mistakes. This can be achieved, you see, but not with a president who has no clue as to what hunger—both for food and recognition—is. Not with kibbutz members from the ‘first-Israel’ who may still think that that beautiful stream was given to them by God (not that they are believers)? They were Chalutzim once, pioneers of the ‘Tower and Stockade’ settlements, who received the land—spring-fed warm pool and narrow stream included, a la ‘Garden of Eden’—from the ‘Jewish National Fund.’ The Arabs certainly lived there before them.

Which reminds me of something else, too. The last time I jumped headfirst and swam in that beautiful, paradisical pool, was in the winter three years ago. I visited Israel on the occasion of my mother, also a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, 90th birthday. It was cloudy and cold that January day my brother drove me to the Sachne. I told him I won’t leave the old country without swimming again in my ‘fountain-of-youth.’ We were almost by ourselves there. Us and nature. Like old times. But we had fun galore. And then we sat on a wooden bench and my brother brought his Finjan, his coffee kit, and made us strong cups of black coffee to warm our shivering bones. And as we sipped the coffee and talked, looking at the argentine, peaceful waters while guarded by the rocky Mount Gilboa, paradise—if for a fleeting moment—was found again.

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The Revolution Has Started

Five years ago I published a post here titled, “Halle Berry & the Jewish Problem.” It saw daylight also on ‘The Times of Israel’ and generated many shares and comments, mostly (not to my surprise) unfavorable. In it, I coined the phrase ‘The Halle Berry Syndrome,’ result of a radio interview the actress had given on the NPR program ‘All Things Considered,’ in which (among other things) she’d said that: “… being a mother myself, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my daughter, whether it be legal or illegal.” And: “I can tell you, as sure as I’m sitting in this chair, if she killed somebody, I would help her bury the body.”

Hearing that, aghast, I immediately made the analogy to many American Jews I knew back then, especially in religious congregations, who would behave—and were behaving—in a similar fashion regarding Israel. They were afflicted, I’d made the point with the same symptoms and attitude. No matter whether they were Democrats or Republicans; Reforms or Conservatives; Liberals or Illiberals; Religious or Secular; there was no distinction when it came to Israel: they would all help bury the body.

Israel, you see, could do no wrong. Could be guilty of no crime. Could be accused of no misdeed. It was AIPAC’s way or the highway: defend Israel at all costs; defend Netanyahu at all costs (even while attacking and working against a sitting American president); defend the occupation and settlements at all costs. If you think otherwise, keep it to yourself. But we, individuals and groups, refused to stay quiet. We continued to talk and raise our voices in opposition to the doctrine of ‘Israel could do no wrong,’ which was declared often from the pulpit by the rabbis.

But now, at long last, the chickens have come home to roost, and the full scope of years of ignorance and blindness manifested in the current threat of annexation, is in clear view while a major shift in public opinion among American Jews—even among conservatives—is in full swing. So much so that the ‘sacred cow’ of ‘Israel can do no wrong’ is being questioned frequently, and being challenged in the open on social media in all its platforms. Bibi is no longer king, and like so many in Israel, they’re dying to see him go away for good. The occupation stinks, and the settlements—build in the West bank with their hard-earned dollars—are beginning to be viewed as problematic, as taking the wrong path.

Because the Jews who escaped Europe and survived the Holocaust, who fought so hard against the South African Apartheid and American racism, they—or mostly their children—now see Israel headed in the same direction. The direction of endless war. Endless conflict. And if not Apartheid, then a binational, one-state solution de facto with both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, sharing the land. Which soon won’t be a Jewish state anymore. Of course, some Jews are still afflicted with the ‘Halle Berry Syndrome,’ but many others see the light and react with a cry of subdued ‘mea culpa:’ What happened to our beloved country? Are we at fault, too?

Others, though, are shying away from it all. We have enough problems of our own, they say, here in America. Existential problems. Let us deal with them first. We have our own dictator-in-the-making to fight against. You there fight your own fight. Eat what you’ve been cooking all these years since the Six-day war. We now have the coronavirus pandemic to deal with. Which, make no mistake about it, would influence American Jewry relations with Israel too. It’s a matter of personal survival, nowadays, of our own and our families’ health and economic survival. Religious congregations are shut, (going virtual on ZOOM and YouTube). Jews who all their lives went to shul every week at least once, on Shabbat, are no longer doing so. Coming this fall, High Holidays would also be conducted via virtual reality.

How would they collect the Jewish High Holiday tithe going to support Israel? Who would they listen to, now that the rabbis would no longer be hammering into them how to think, how to support, how to talk about Israel every Shabbat from the Bimah? Tell you how: they now learn for themselves everything online. Gone are the days when they only received their info about Israeli politics from the overly supportive TV Networks and the ‘Jewish Forward.’ They read Haaretz and The Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post online. Some other outlets too. And while this terrible pandemic is unexpected (some experts would argue otherwise), this turn of how Jewish American view Israel is not. It’s been long in the making.

Which brings me to Israel. Back home. Don’t count on American Jews to save you this time, I say, it’s your rotten apple to eat, as here in America we’re left eating our own rotten apple of growing anti-Semitism. And not only because of the imbecilic president who currently resides in the White House, but because of the corona pandemic too. It brings out the best, and the worst in people. Among them, in certain quarters, are those who now loudly call: ’Blame the Jews!’ Last year I went down to the American River, as I do every weekend, and on the paved path leading to it, there was a swastika painted in black. In 30-some years here in America I never encountered such a thing before (I called the Park Rangers and they cleaned it up).

So be aware of this too: The revolution has started. Not only among blacks and browns, the poor and the desolate, but among American Jews too. Just as it has started in Israel by Israelis, mostly the young, who are fighting for their lives and livelihood, and are fed up with the old guard. But be sure of this, too: American Jews still love Israel dearly. It’s in their DNA, after all. Alas, they are in the process of liberating themselves from the shackles of slavery to a country that’s no longer representing the ideal of its own Declaration of Independence. Gone, baby Israel, gone. You’re a grown-up now, get used to it. So “fasten your seatbelt” (in the immortal words of another Hollywood film star), as when it comes to the continuation of the occupation and the possibility of annexation, “it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

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