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Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing

Posted on Jun 8, 2011
AP / Muhammed Muheisen

Backdropped by a section of Israel’s separation barrier, Israeli troops fire rubber bullets at Palestinian stone throwers, not seen, during clashes in the West Bank in 2007.

By Larry Gross

In 1953 my family—my parents and their four boys, aged 4 to 12, I was 10—moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Israel, where we remained for seven years. My father was what might be called a McCarthy refugee, a former Truman administration official who was also a “premature anti-fascist” (look it up) and thus not eminently employable in that chilly era of Red-hunting. I’ve since read my father’s FBI file and I know how close he came to being fingered as a former Communist Party member (my parents both left the CP after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact). My father received offers to join many other former government officials in taking overseas posts in such imperial outposts as Japan, Indonesia and Pakistan, but my mother said she wouldn’t raise her children in a “foreign nationals” bubble surrounded by servants. An offer to my father to join a group of economic advisers to the prime minister of the then 5-year-old state of Israel was another matter. To my mother, the daughter of longtime Labor Zionists, this was an appealing option, and we left the States for what was to be a two-year stint. After the two years were over, my father moved to the Hebrew University, where he taught for the next five years before we returned to the United States and I started college.

I’ve long thought that it wasn’t a bad bargain, missing out on the 1950s in the United States, by all accounts a very missable decade, and instead experiencing life in the young and then exciting and idealistic state of Israel. From the sixth grade through high school I went to Jerusalem schools, using Hebrew and absorbing a blend of nationalism and Jewish-slanted perspectives on history, within a context of widely proclaimed external threats and internal nation-building. This was a period in which education—history, geography and even Bible studies—was clearly in the service of the national enterprise. Even in the secular schools Bible study was required, but the subject largely was taught as an extension of the story of the Jews, reinforcing the connections of the Chosen People to the land, with the names of biblical places still present all around us, cementing the historical continuity we were now experiencing after 2,000 years of exile. As the familiar song went, we have come to the Land, to build and to be rebuilt in it. 

Even then there were tangles in the stories that were woven through the nationalist tapestry: The barely disguised racism to which Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries were subjected, in comparison with the preferential treatment of Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe and the United States—to my parents’ amusement, British and American Jews were routinely referred to as “Anglo-Saxons”—and the even less disguised racism directed at Arabs. Traveling with my father, whose advisory brief included public housing, to visit settlements for Sephardic immigrants—Maabarot—it was easy to see the contrast between the government’s views of various categories of olim (immigrants), and the vast difference in social services and opportunities extended. It was also easy to see that Israeli Arabs occupied a distinctly lower status. 

At the same time, to be blunt, it was also clear to me that the beauty of the landscape and the indigenous architecture that seemed to grow organically on the rocky hills, a landscape and architecture that has etched itself on my soul, was the creation of the Palestinian people who had lived in these hills for generations.  In contrast, the new settlements built by the Israeli government spread across the hilltops like an ugly ribbon of concrete.

The big city of the time, Tel Aviv, despite some neighborhoods with low-rise apartment buildings echoing the Bauhaus style, felt ugly and cramped and already was falling apart. Now, I know that Tel Aviv has been transformed, with skyscrapers and freeways, bright lights and nightlife, but it also looks like nearly every other modern metropolis. The adjacent Arab port of Jaffa, absorbed into a unified Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, has been gentrified and touristed up. 

The Jerusalem of my childhood was a divided city, in which the new part, the Israeli portion, was a small town I could traverse on my bicycle, avoiding the scar of barbed-wired “no man’s land” that divided it from the Jordanian-controlled Old City. Since 1967 the unified city, along with the extensive territories annexed into “Greater Jerusalem,” has grown and expanded and build up and out. High-rises have desecrated the timeless skyline of the city, as new housing settlements have covered the surrounding hills. 

Even more striking than the sheer growth of the city is its domination by the ultra-orthodox. I recall the first riot I ever saw, in the mid-1950s, when thousands of black-suited men thronged the center of the city to protest the building of the first public swimming pool in Jerusalem. The pool was expected to permit men and women to swim at the same time, a provocation and blasphemy that roused the orthodox communities to outrage. Previously, the orthodox communities had limited themselves to barricading their streets during the Sabbath and throwing stones at cars that wandered too close to their neighborhoods. They also greeted other violations in similar fashion: I recall my mother being pelted with pebbles by small boys when she wore a sleeveless dress as we walked on a street that was the border between orthodox and secular neighborhoods. But the tensions of that time were nothing compared to the rise of religious nationalism after the 1967 Six Day War, when many ultra-orthodox groups previously hostile to Zionism—God will decide when we return to Zion, not men, they argued, and thus Zionism is presumptuous—took the Israeli victory as a sign that God now favored the Zionist enterprise, and therefore Jews had the right and indeed the obligation to settle the entire Land of Israel.


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DavidByron's avatar

By DavidByron, June 9, 2011 at 7:54 am Link to this comment

It just seems like even the best people who were raised by the genocidal regime come out racist still.  There are a number of places in this article where the author display racist prejudices against the Palestinians even while apparently the whole purpose of the article is to oppose that sort of sentiment.

At the end of the article he finally cops to the parallel between the Nazis and the Israelis.  Just after a series of comments saying both sides were equally to blame.  So he goes back and forth quite a bit.  he is condemned by his own words,

“it leaves us with a false equivalence of competing claims and culpability”

In addition the author seems to largely ignore the initial invasion of territory in 1948 by talking more about 1967 as if that was anything but a small continuation of the genocide that has always been at the very heart of Israel, far more so than any other state.  At least Germany had other things going on.  With Israel its all genocide all the time.  With Israel genocide is the sine qua non, the birth and the sustenance of that racist state.  In that sense their guilt is far worse than the Germans who could well say they didn’t know what was going on.  In Israel everyone’s business is genocide, even (as he reports here) children.

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By Tobysgirl, June 9, 2011 at 7:04 am Link to this comment

I had personal contact with two Israelis, one whose book I proofread, the other through meeting her and her husband when they were vacationing in the U.S. Both contacts were extremely depressing. The first man, quite sensitive and thoughtful, sent me a clipping about his wife, a judge, who lashed out at “bleeding heart liberals.” I was, needless to say, revolted. I asked the second person what she and her husband thought of the Christian fundamentalists who support Israel, and I never heard from her again.

If Israel ever has to answer for its crimes—how about the U.S. answering for its much worse ones?—I’m sure Israelies and Americans will offer up the same excuses as Germans did.

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By colindale, June 9, 2011 at 4:16 am Link to this comment

It is abundantly clear to anyone willing to spend
just 30 minutes on research, that there is only one
indigenous people of the land between the Sea and the
River, the area known as Palestine - those are the
Arab families who have lived continuously there for
over one thousand years.

In all that time, there has only ever been a small
Jewish minority.  Until the UN resolution of 1947 and
the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

That the only indigenous people should have been
forcibly displaced by Americans and Europeans who
claim lineage from an obscure Hebrew sect that once
lived in Jerusalem 3000 years ago, is patently

But that is what happened and that is what the
Christian Zionists support - notwithstanding the
injustice and suffering caused.  A extraordinary way to follow a faith and secure peace in the world.

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By madisolation, June 9, 2011 at 3:41 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Mr. Gross, for this eye-opening column.

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By PatrickHenry, June 9, 2011 at 2:18 am Link to this comment

I always wondered why a social justice site like BDS movement dot org could be blacklisted but a manevolent site such as is not.

Truthdig is one of the truely open sites allowing different perspectives on issues, however the morality filter for their ‘blacklisting’ needs some adjusting.

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By MeHere, June 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for a very thoughtful article.  L. Gross says it all, with compassion, integrity, and without any animosity.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment

I have already commented positively on Larry Gross’ informative piece. However, I don’t like the part of the title that says, “From Idealism…;” for indeed there was never anything “ideal” about the colonialist, racist and terrorist Zionist project, except in the crooked and perverted minds of those who conceived it.

A project that had in it any grain of idealism would not have ended being a project of colonialist militarism, savege occupation, terrorism and ethnic cleansing. My point is that “idealism” is a mutally contradictory term with what Zionist Israel ended up to be in reality.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another truthdigging by another good and noble Jew within a period of less than a week!

Thank you Larry Gross for telling it as it should be toled! And thank you Truthdig for being a forum for truthdigging, for only the truth will eventually liberate the Palestinians from their oppression and their “minor” Holocaust, and it will, likewise, liberate the Jews from their racist entity’s falshoods, deception and terrorism.

If there is a chance for reconciliation and peace it will come through the courage of people such as Larry Gross, Miko Peled and other vetrans of Jewish truth and peace movements, as well as through forums of truthdigging and education, such as Truthdig.

Forget about hypocrite Obama, fanatic Netanyaho or meek, stupid Mahmoud Abbas for those three are symbols and symptoms of the problem and not the solution!

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By john from ojai, June 8, 2011 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks Truthdig for the fine article.

One of the ways that people can address the injustice is to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel and any corporation that profits from the illegal occupation.

One of the ways that Truthdig could address the injustice is to stop blacklisting the major sight that supports BDS. They could also answer emails complaining about said blacklisting.

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