The matkot players on the crowded beach in Herzliya tik-tokked their ball dangerously close to the faces of the other beach goers. Behind me, three young guys were sharing a hookah, blowing puffs of smoke that drifted slowly toward the sea. The setting sun lit up the sand, and the tide washed away castles left behind by small children. The Gaza war had just ended with a ceasefire. It was hard to imagine that only a few days earlier people here had been hiding in bomb shelters.
As my children and my husband jumped waves, I watched the beach-goers, trying to gather the courage to ask one of them for an interview. My family and I had just arrived in Israel for a one-year sabbatical—our first long-term stay in Israel since we had left the country 20 years earlier, and I was about to embark on a project: I wanted to explore the complexity of Israeli society through a series of interviews and photographs of regular Israelis.
For my very first interview, I hesitated between the hookah smokers and an older woman sitting by herself in a beach chair. The smokers were immersed in conversation, so I walked over to the woman, explained to her my plan, and asked if I could interview her.
“Sure!” said the woman, whose name was Tammy. “I’m happy to talk!”
She was the first of more than 60 Israelis I interviewed over the next 10 months—young and old, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, men and women, right-wing and left-wing. I asked each of them about their identity, their family, their origin, and their vision for the future of the country.
I expected resistance because my own skeptical nature inclines me to be suspicious of a stranger claiming to be a journalist, but most Israelis turned out to be more trusting than I am. It ended up being surprisingly easy to find people willing to be photographed and interviewed. Almost half the people I approached agreed to answer my questions and pose for a picture. Some spoke to me for almost an hour, others offered a glimpse into their life in a rushed five-minute conversation. Almost everybody had a story to tell. Even those who declined an interview usually did so with an apology and wished me success with my project. Many even thanked me for trying to show “the truth” about Israel to the world, not realizing that my truth did not exactly match theirs.
But in fact, my motivation for the interviews was more complicated than the explanation I presented. As I asked others about their fears and hopes for Israel, I was actually trying to untangle a deeper and more personal question—about my own complex relationship with the country.
As my husband Gil and I had been preparing for our departure to Israel, I’d felt awkward telling our Vermont neighbors and acquaintances of our destination. Operation Protective Edge was in full gear, and it was hard to ignore the images of the mangled bodies of Palestinian children that appeared in the news. Good people in Europe and the United States called for a boycott on Israel, and one of my Facebook friends posted that “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Germany and Poland.” When I mentioned to American friends and neighbors that we were packing up to spend a year in Israel, they either contorted their faces into concerned grimaces or hid behind blank smiles, beneath which I assumed unspoken judgment. This was not a time to speak of going to Israel. To clarify that our move was not a gesture of support for the Israeli war effort, I’d explain that we would be spending the year in Israel to give our elderly parents the chance to spend more time with their grandchildren.
I felt deeply uncomfortable. A number of my Facebook friends had chosen as their profile picture the image of a bloodied child over which was printed the appeal: “Stop the Genocide in Gaza.” Other friends responded to the international outrage by changing their profile picture to a heroically rippling Israeli flag. I tried to ignore the red blood and the blue stars.
I had always felt a bit defensive about my decision to move from Amsterdam to Israel when I was 17. This was in the late 1980s, and the first Intifada had just started. When I told my high-school classmates that I planned to spend a year in Israel after graduation, one boy, Hidde, turned to me in disgust. “Israel?” he asked. “You are joining the Zionist oppression of the Palestinian people?”
I was puzzled. I had no intention of oppressing the Palestinian people, and I didn’t even care much about Zionism. My connection to Israel was not ideological, but sensory. I had spent many happy vacations in Israel as a child. For me it was the place where I learned to suck on dried carob pods when I was 4; it was the Polish conditoria in downtown Haifa; it was playing four-in-a-row with my Israeli second cousins, sighs and giggles our only shared language; it was the music of certain Israeli artists; it was the street cats that I adopted when we stayed for half a year in our friend Yossi’s house in the artist village of Ein Hod.
I shrugged off Hidde’s accusation, as most of my classmates did when he pestered us with high-minded judgments. But his words left me with a lingering unease. Had I indeed been morally careless for leaving behind the simple righteousness of Holland for this murky tangle of Zionism and Jewish identity politics?
I thought back to Hidde’s judgment last year when I started interviewing people for my project. I talked to a shoe salesman from Tehran, who had arrived in Israel as a teenager around the same time as I did. He had fled Iran when he was drafted into the Iranian army and sent to the front. Would Hidde have blamed him for trying to escape a senseless war?
I talked to a 70-year-old bookseller whose parents had immigrated from Poland after WWII. He grew up in Tel Aviv and decided to open a bookstore because he liked to read. Was he to be blamed for the oppression of the Palestinians?
Arguably, the most straightforward blame could be laid on a young settler from Ofra, who was so willfully ignorant of the implications of her ideology that she had never bothered trying to understand the experience of her Palestinian neighbors. “They want their own country, right?” she asked, as if this was some far-fetched gossip she had overheard somewhere. But I couldn’t blame her for not questioning the assumptions on which she had been raised. Most of us don’t. Was it her fault she had never considered another narrative? It turned out that even her own narrative wasn’t straightforward. She told me her father had actually grown up as a Druze in Lebanon and had converted to Judaism. Nothing is simple.
Whenever I had a free moment, I zealously looked for possible subjects to interview. I accosted people in trains, cafés, stores, buses, and public parks, often while my children waited impatiently by my side, rolling their eyes. But as I listened to people’s ruminations about their life and about Israeli society, I wasn’t just listening as a journalist; I was listening for answers to my own questions.
The question most urgently on my mind was: Where do I belong?
I think I left behind my sense of self when I departed from Amsterdam. The person I could have become may still exist in some parallel reality, riding her bicycle along the canals. But when I arrived in Israel, all possibilities opened up. Ideas and assumptions that seemed obvious in one environment looked completely different in a new place. I felt I could become anyone and choose any outlook on the world. Picking a new identity could be as capricious as choosing new friends.
As it happened, I enrolled in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and met Gil, then a student who, like me, majored in history. He introduced me to Israeli left-wing ideals. On one of our first dates we joined a protest of the Women in Black against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
But it was also Gil’s idea to apply for graduate school in the United States. In 1994, just after Rabin and Arafat shook hands on a peace deal, Gil and I packed our suitcases and set out for the new world. I was reluctant to leave Israel at such a promising time. Peace seemed to be just a matter of working out the details, and Herzl’s vision—a society where Jews, Muslims, and Christians would live together in prosperity, freedom, and equality—appeared to be on the horizon. The new Middle East would wait for us upon our return, I thought.
But the new Middle East didn’t wait, and we never returned to live in Israel. We completed our studies, our children were born, and meanwhile the Israel we had left moved further and further away from the Israel we had imagined. When Gil got offered a position at an American university, we had no good reason to decline. Life in Vermont was beautiful: We lived in a prosperous college town on the Connecticut River, surrounded by wooded mountains and organic farmland. But I often woke up in a panic in our beautiful house in the forest, feeling I had made a mistake and was living somebody else’s life. Every few years, we would plan our return to Israel, only to decide at the last moment that it wasn’t worth giving up our children’s safety and comfort for a promised land that, as described in the newspapers, was falling short of every promise ever made.
We were living a new twist on the old Jewish dilemma. In the olden days, Diaspora Jews would conclude the yearly Passover Seder with the wish to be free from oppression and celebrate “next year in Jerusalem.” Gil and I expressed this same wish at our yearly Seder. We were not, however, held back by hardship; we were trapped in the comfort and security of America.
In fact, this was the true reason for our sabbatical: I thought a year in the reality of Israel would cure us of our longing. Maybe if we experienced the misery of the real Israel, we could finally be content in beautiful Vermont.
Two weeks after our arrival, we met up with old friends for a reunion weekend in a hostel in the old city of Nazareth. Our former classmates from Hebrew University were now activists, journalists, teachers, and academics. Our friend Merav had picked this particular hostel because she knew the owners, a Jewish and an Arab family, who had turned a dilapidated Ottoman mansion into a “peace” hostel. As we sat by a fountain in the old stone courtyard, sipping sweet mint tea, Gil consulted our friends about our dilemma.
“I’d like to come back,” he said, “but would it be fair to my kids to move them from Vermont to a place like this? The tension, the wars, the violence, the intolerance … ” I kicked him under the table, trying to alert him that our friends were living the life we had rejected. “The future looks so bleak … It wouldn’t make sense to return to Israel, would it?” Gil finally fell silent when he noticed my warning glare.
“But who’s promising you that things will never turn bad in America?” said our friend Danni, the skeptic, who, despite his pretense of pessimism maintains a fierce belief in the bright future of a democratic Israel.
The morning sun filtered through the vines, and a pair of doves flew back and forth from the fountain to their nest under a stone arch. In the tranquility of this courtyard, the problems of the Middle East didn’t seem as desperate as when I read about them in the news. Danny was right. Indeed, every place has its problems. We had cowardly jumped ship and abandoned our friends. Maybe it was time for us to be brave and return.
On the other hand, I also remembered an Israeli woman I had met in Boston a few years earlier. She had just left Israel and told me she didn’t intend to go back. “It would be like moving back to Europe in 1939,” she said.
Whenever I did one of my interviews, I was always asking the same unspoken question: Should we come back or not?
The first interview I did after I left my friends at the hostel was not encouraging. In Nazareth’s old-city market, I talked to a Palestinian barber who invited me into his shop where he was giving a buzz cut to a little boy getting ready to go back to school. “I oppose a Jewish state,” said the barber. “Why do we have to suffer for what Hitler did to the Jews in Europe?” He listed the Palestinian villages that had been displaced by current Israeli towns and declared: “There won’t be peace until all the Palestinian refugees can return to their original hometowns.”
Other interviews were equally discouraging. I met many young secular Jewish Israelis who said they wanted to escape religious fundamentalism, war, stress, intolerance, or economic hardship and were about to emigrate to find better lives in the United States, Australia, or Europe.
“I’m not staying here to save this country! It’s just some lines they drew on a map 80 years ago,” said a young man whose grandmother had survived Auschwitz.
Those who had put their hopes in God were more optimistic. A Chabad representative who operated a tefillin table at the entrance to the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv described to me Chabad’s vision for the future of the country: a society run according to the laws of the Torah instead of the secular, goyishe laws. He explained Chabad’s success as a sign of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. “Because we are close to the end of days, the souls of Jews are waking up,” he said. “The big light of the Messiah attracts the small sparks of Jewish souls, like a big fire attracting smaller fires.”
A woman from Yitzhar, an extremist settlement that is home to many “price-tag” activists, didn’t even bother to consider an earthly future. “The Messiah can come any day,” she said. “In the meantime, we just pray and strengthen our faith.”
I set out on my project with the idea that if you understand people’s circumstances, their ideology will make sense. I don’t think too much of my own opinions. I have experienced enough randomness to suspect that with a small change in circumstances I could have turned out completely different. If I had met a handsome settler at Hebrew University I might now be living in Tekoa. And if I had stayed in Amsterdam, I might be waiving a Palestinian flag at BDS demonstrations on Dam Square.
We all cling to solutions with which we hope to change the world as it is to the world as we would like it to be: free of conflict, struggle, and worries. Some of these solutions were so appealing, I felt tempted to join if I could just suspend my disbelief.
A vegetable seller in Bnei Brak suggested that the world would be better off if everybody observed the laws of their religion. He painted an idyllic picture of Muslims, Jews, and Christians living together in harmony, leaving the running of society up to imams, priests, and rabbis.
A woman who ran a health-food restaurant declared herself an Essene, a modern disciple of the sect that is believed to have authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. She claimed to have put together her own spirituality after reading the prophesy of Ezekiel and described a world in which the People of Darkness, who promote warfare and hatred, struggle with the People of Light, who open their hearts to love and goodness. “Regardless of our religion or our nationality, we Essenes are united, even if we don’t know it yet,” she said. She was stocking up on supplies because the final battle was near, after which the People of Light would be chosen for the world to come. She asked me not to publish her portrait because she wanted to hide her identity from the People of Darkness. I removed her portrait reluctantly. Not only was her perspective refreshingly different from the standard ideologies, but I also thought she would have recognized fellow Essenes among the other people I interviewed.
I met a computer programmer who tried to understand good and evil and who worried that simple obedience could lead to wrongdoing. He certainly belonged to the light. And so did a young religious woman who apologized to me for being unable to give succinct answers because, she said, “when you try to simplify, you lose all the nuance, and your words become meaningless.”
In fact, almost everyone I encountered carried some light. Almost no one promoted warfare and hatred. Most people said they want to live in peace and protect their children.
Moran, a young Orthodox mother cried because war sirens had gone off the day after her son was born, and she worried he’d grow up to fight in war.
Rami, who worked at our neighborhood supermarket in Herzliya but who lived in Umm El-Fahm, the largest Muslim town in Israel, just wished for an easier life and more time to spend with his family. He had two young sons and told me that if a war broke out, he wanted to take them to a safe place. “But I don’t know where I’d go,” he said, “there’s war everywhere!” Rami helped us move some furniture when we vacated our apartment to return to Vermont. “Don’t forget me,” was the last thing he said when he drove off in his delivery truck.
Mustafa, an antiques dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem, said he wanted to set aside ethnic and religious differences and just be a human being. But he had to explain to me that even though his shop was located in the so-called Christian Quarter he actually happened to be a Muslim. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into a Jewish, a Muslim, a Christian, and an Armenian quarter, because traditional city planning doesn’t allow for “just human beings.”
Even those I’m inclined to see as People of Darkness—for instance, proponents of ethnic cleansing—didn’t seem hateful in person. Once you sit in someone’s living room, drinking coffee together, it’s hard to maintain hostility.
Amalia was a settler who had been evacuated from Gaza during the 2005 withdrawal. She now lives with her husband in a government-provided caravan on the Mediterranean beach south of Haifa. She said she had given peace a chance when she agreed to abandon her house in Gaza. But now Hamas was shooting rockets at Israel from her former home. Amalia said she felt sorry for the suffering of the Palestinians, but the Jews deserve their own country, and, since peace was impossible, the only answer was transfer. “We’ll give them their own country, we’ll help them move; we can even give them some money to start over,” she offered magnanimously. Amalia’s parents were Libyan Jews who had lost everything when they fled the pogroms in Libya after WWII. Maybe that’s why forced migration didn’t seem like such a big deal to her.
Before I left, Amalia mentioned she was organizing a trip to Jerusalem with a few friends, but some of them wanted to cancel because riots had broken out. “This is our country,” she scoffed. “If they are afraid of conflict, they should go live in America … ”
I objected to Amalia’s violently simplistic worldview. Reality is much more complex than “us” versus “them”; “Jews” versus “Arabs”; “Israelis” versus “Palestinians.” But I also realized it was easy for me to reject Amalia’s tribalism. I would indeed return to America. It’s easy to withdraw into neutrality when you let others fight your battles. If you always retreat from conflict, there will eventually be nowhere left to go.
Our year in Israel had done nothing to reconcile me with my life in Vermont. I thought it would cure me of my nostalgia, but instead it reignited an unreasonable love that I thought I had managed to extinguish. I still don’t know where I belong. I cried when I packed our suitcases for our return. I didn’t want to leave Israel. I couldn’t help it. I love these people: the ultra-Orthodox ba’alat teshuva who told me she misses wearing mini-skirts; the Arab man from an unrecognized Arab village who agreed to vote for the National Religious Party so that the village would get water and electricity from the neighboring Orthodox Jewish community; the Jewish-Iraqi woman who arrived in Israel as a 10-year-old and who gushed nostalgically about her childhood in a transit camp; the Netanyahu supporter from Jaffa who befriended her Arab neighbors as they hid together in the bomb shelter; the settler who worked as a relationship counselor and who advises his clients to work out their conflicts through empathy and compromise … I would have liked to conclude my project with a big party to bring them all together. In my imagination, the party could blossom into a peace movement and we would finally devise a plan to all live together in prosperity, freedom, and equality. But despite Herzl’s optimistic words—“If you will it, it is no dream”—I know the Israel of my imagination does not exist and will never exist, as no ideal can ever be real.
Unlike most others, I have the privilege of choice: I can move back to Israel to join the losing battle against religious fanaticism and blind nationalism. Or I can turn my back on Israel to live a sheltered middle-class American life.
We are back in Vermont now, and last week I picked up our cat, Tula. We had found a temporary home for her with some graduate students who rented a house together in our town. In my email correspondence about Tula’s well-being, I had learned that the person taking care of Tula was Tamer, a Palestinian graduate student from Hebron who is pursuing a Ph.D. at the university where my husband teaches. Tamer received me when I came to the house to reclaim our cat. As Tula paced back and forth between us, confused about her loyalties, Tamer and I stumbled over our words, gushing good will.
Tamer immediately found an opportunity to inform me that he had many Israeli friends because, as a teenager, he had been active in Seeds of Peace, an American-sponsored peace program.
In return, to show my disapproval over the injustice of Israeli policies in the West Bank, I asked Tamer if his parents suffered much from the presence of the Israeli settlers in Hebron. “Oh, no,” he reassured me. “They live in a neighborhood outside the center. It’s kind of a bubble. You barely notice the conflict there.”
The possibility of a bubble of peaceful contentment in Palestinian Hebron opened up for me a whole new exciting vision of the Middle East.
“But I thought Tel Aviv was the only bubble in the region!” I said.
“Well,” he said with a smile, “it’s not as much a bubble as Tel Aviv, of course!”
I invited Tamer and his wife for dinner. They brought a bottle from the Hebron Heights Winery, which someone had left at their house and which had been deemed too politically incorrect for consumption. “We thought this would be a nice occasion to finally find out what kind of wine the settlers produce,” Tamer said as we clinked our glasses. Over dinner, we talked about Israeli and Palestinian politics and exchanged recommendations for Middle Eastern TV shows that can be streamed online. Maybe we can create our own little bubble of peace here in Vermont.
I’m sitting on our porch now, watching Tula prowl through the grass in pursuit of a chipmunk. My kids are off to circus club, where they practice juggling. They left on their unicycles to ride down to the village via a shortcut through the forest. People here are friendly and considerate. We make small talk at the local grocery store. Our conflicts are small and benign—quarrels about the desired color for new road signs, or whether to allow unleashed dogs on the hiking trails. There is so much goodness here, such bliss.
I spent the afternoon online, checking out real estate in Israel.
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Judith Hertog is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, and occasional photographer.