This is a guest post from Emma Pasternack. As with any blog post on the site, if any reader does not understand the terms or phrases that we use, they can check the Movement 101 terms or leave a question below the post.
This post is a compilation of many things I have been turning over in my head since making aliyah in August. I still feel very unsettled in how I feel about the conflict, my movement, and Israeli society. I am in a constant, challenging, and amazing process. This is my attempt to sort out some of these things for myself, and share my process others.
The last few days, my newsfeed has been filled with articles about the UN security council resolution about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Old friends from J Street U are thanking President Obama for abstaining, heralding this as the bold leadership the world has been waiting for. More right wing friends are speaking as though America betrayed Israel, and accusing Obama of being an anti-semite. I have read countless articles trying to articulate what the actual consequences of this resolution are that mostly seem to conclude there are no practical consequences, merely symbolic ones. And I want to care. I want to join my friends in thanking President Obama, in feeling elated at the leadership he has shown on this issue. Deep down inside though, I think I join Bibi Netanyahu and many Israelis in humiliation and shame. All this did was make us feel alienated. And Bibi is right, friends don’t embarrass friends on a world stage.
This experience of identifying more strongly with Israelis than with the American Jewish left reminded me of one of the hardest things about making aliyah: I feel much less urgency about the occupation. And even worse than that, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
In my four years in J Street U, I felt a daily, constant urgency around the conflict, and I felt like J Street U was the perfect medium for actualization of my values. To me, a day spent not talking about peace, not organizing others, not posting articles on facebook, reading Ha’aretz, or planning a meeting was a day wasted. I felt strongly that the occupation was the most pressing existential threat facing Israeli society, and the Jewish people as a whole. If we could not figure out a way to stop illegally occupying another people, that would be the end of Israel and a stain on Jewish history from which we could never recover. I also strongly felt that the American Jewish community had a vital role to play in bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians. While I didn’t agree with IfNotNow’s non-stance on Zionism, I supported their work in trying to move the American Jewish community because I thought any work on this issue was good work. I understood my role, I was driven by it. Peace felt like something just out of reach.
During my senior year, however, something deep in me began to pull at all those beliefs. I began increasingly to feel that I could not claim to put Israel at the center of my life without being an agent in Israeli society. I felt this most acutely after my official decision to make aliyah with my friends. We formed our garin in late December, and just about a month later I went to the J Street U Winter Leadership Institute (WLI). I sat in session after session listening to people claim to care deeply about Israel, and none of them even consider the idea of being a part of it. If the conflict is so important to you, I thought, go there. I wondered how so many people could hold these deep connections or criticisms of Israel without ever challenging themselves to live there.
I made aliyah on August 30, 2016. After four hours of processing and paperwork in the Misrad HaKlita (office of immigrant absorption), I was greeted at the airport by old friends, madrichim, new friends, and people I hadn’t even met before. I was immediately immersed in a new movement and new process of getting to know Israeli society. At first, the old urgency nagged at me. I asked every new Israeli I met how they felt about the conflict, what was the movement going to do about it, and so on. I had to know. I had moments of wondering if the movement could truly actualize all my values without doing more to fight for peace.
These feelings began to shift when I went to a Dror Israel seminar called Ḥeshbon v’Zikaron (accounting and memory). The seminar (Ḥeshboz for short) is the movement’s way of commemorating Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s murder, z”l. We spent two days in peulot dealing with many subjects related to Rabin’s murder and Israeli society in general. Over the course of the seminar, I began to ask myself a new and deeply challenging question: what if Israeli society doesn’t actually want peace, and where do we go from there?
I knew something had really changed within myself on a drive from Be’er Sheva to Haifa sometime in November. For a stretch of the drive, the separation barrier is visible from the road. Depending on location, the separation barrier takes the form of a simple fence or a large concrete wall. I looked out the window, and noticed the wall for the first time since making aliyah. A year beforehand, I would’ve felt a deep, boiling anger; but, this time I didn’t. My feelings were far more complex. Two thoughts ran through my head: how can the Jewish people be doing this? and thank God this keeps me and all my friends safe.
And I think this is happening because my actual security and safety are now affected by this issue. Of course I still know that checkpoints are dehumanizing and the security barrier is oppressive, but they also keep me safe. And I am not willing to give up those things unless I know that peace will actually happen. Another intifada or political assassination is too high a price to pay for another failed peace process.
A powerful experience for me was when I ran a four-day day seminar on Jerusalem and the conflict for my chanichim a few weeks ago. We invited many speakers. One of them was the coordinator of HaNoar HaOved v’HaLomed (NOAL) kenim in Machoz Yerushalayim (the region of Jerusalem), Gal Itzik. She spoke about the fact that NOAL has kenim in the settlements, and why she thinks it is important. She said that if people who actually live in the settlements do not want peace, and are not educated towards the equality of human value, there will be a civil war when Israel tries to evacuate them. Someone will shoot a soldier and only more violence will come from there. And I suddenly understood that if Israeli society is not ready for peace, a political, top-down agreement will only cause more violence and unrest. This is the lesson we already learned from Rabin’s murder, but a lesson the American Jewish left has deeply failed to internalize.
When I think about this change in my opinions (I like to joke I’m becoming right-wing), I feel pretty guilty and disillusioned. But I also think I’ve understood something new that makes me very hopeful. The change must come from within Israeli society. No one will end this conflict from the outside. America and the American Jewish community will not pressure Israel into a peace it’s not ready for. Rockets from Gaza will not create peace. The only hope is an Israeli society that is ready, and deeply wants peace with itself and its neighbors. And I truly believe my movement, Dror Israel, is trying to create that. Sure, I have my critiques: we don’t talk about peace enough and we don’t have enough of a vision for what peace should actually look like. However, I firmly believe my movement is willing and able to take on those challenges.
I used to think it was only a matter of time before negotiations would ultimately lead to a peace agreement. That was probably naive. But I am here with countless partners doing the work we need; and that gives me more hope than I ever could have had in the diaspora.
So to everyone I knew in college, Habonim Dror North America, and anyone else reading this who firmly believes this is the defining issue of our time and our people: make aliyah. Israeli society needs us. Living here quite possibly could revolutionize the way you feel about everything you have ever known. But maybe that isn’t so bad.
Emma Pasternack is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she majored in Economics, but is now a socialist. She served in leadership positions in J Street U both on campus and nationally, including being a Midwest Regional Chair in her senior year. Emma is from Richmond, California originally, and currently lives in Haifa with the rest of Garin Silan. She loves pop culture, dogs, talking about Zionism, and her kvutza. Emma’s current messima is leading kvutzat Tamuz on Workshop 66.