June 20, 2013
Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing
Posted on Jun 8, 2011
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.
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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