I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a very Jewish neighborhood.
Almost everyone I knew was Jewish.
My public school was closed on Jewish holidays, not only because there were no kids in class, but also because almost all of the teachers were Jewish, too. I had one non-Jewish friend in my group of friends, an Italian Catholic named Vinny. He was one of the luckiest kids in our class because he got invited to everyone’s bar mitzvah. We always belonged to a synagogue, not because we were religious, but because that was just something that was done – it was part of life and part of our culture. I asked my parents to celebrate my bar mitzvah in Israel instead of having a big party. It was two years after the 1967 Six Day War and Israel was most definitely a source of pride.
When I was 14 my family moved to a different town, where suddenly I was a small minority – only three percent of my high school was Jewish. In my first week at the new school I was befriended by someone who had spent the summer in Israel; he and his family were planning to make aliya the next summer. He told me he was starting a chapter of the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea and that I should join. I didn’t know much about it, but I thought it would be a good place to meet Jewish girls.
Well, very soon afterward I was deeply involved, elected to the regional executive committee. In my last year in high school I was president of the Long Island region of Young Judaea and had already decided that I would make aliya and link my future to that of Israel. I spent the next year in Israel on the Young Judaea yearcourse program. I made aliya three years later after completing my BA at New York University.
From my very first visit to Israel in 1969 at the age of 13 I felt at home here. That is the best expression of what I felt that summer, and that feeling has remained with me ever since. I have never experienced anti-Semitism. I was not drawn into the Zionist movement because of the need for a safe haven for myself as a Jew. I have always felt connected to Israel out of a positive identification with the Jewish people and a very strong sense of pride in being a Jew and, since 1978, of being an Israeli. I love this country and care deeply about everything that happens here.
In Young Judaea I learned three important lessons (and subsequently taught them to many others): leadership by example, living by what you believe in (your values) and taking initiative. These lessons have been with me my entire life.
The most important lesson of all was that making aliya is not merely a change of address. In moving to Israel we commit ourselves to making Israel a better place – what we now call tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” In the 1970s we didn’t call it that, but that is what we meant.
In my search of where in Israel to dedicate my life to matching the values I grew up with – including being active in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement in America, I was drawn to study the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Hoping to be able to make a difference in this existential problem to the State of Israel, in 1976 I went to meet the PLO Ambassador in the United Nations in NY to try to convince him to recognize the State of Israel and to agree to the two-state solution, which in my mind was the Zionist solution to the conflict.
The PLO ambassador’s unequivocal response at that time was: “Over my dead body. Israel has no right to exist and you Jews should go back to where you came from.”
That was quite a blow for me. Understanding that at that time there was no entry point for a constructive dialogue I decided to begin my life in Israel working on the issue of improving relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. I spent the next two years living in Kafr Qara, a Palestinian Arab village in Israel, where through Interns for Peace, I engaged in community work to develop links between Jewish and Arab communities.
Later I went on to be the first civil servant in Israel responsible for Jewish-Arab relations in the Education Ministry. I founded and directed for seven years the Institute for Education for Jewish Arab Coexistence, affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office (Menechem Begin) and the Education Ministry (Zevulun Hammer).
Then the first intifada broke out and everything changed.
The political message of the first intifada coming out of the refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank forced the PLO to shift its entire political orientation, to recognize Israel and support the two-state solution. The PLO verbalized its new political agenda in its Declaration of Independence of November 1988, demanding to establish their state next to Israel on 22% of the land between the River and the Sea, recognizing Israel on 78% of the land.
On the day that they called for their own independence I felt as though I was living in November 1947, when the UN called for the partition of the land of Israel/ Palestine. I felt that we should have once again danced in the streets, except that now, instead of being allocated about 50% by the UN, the PLO recognized Israel on 78% of the land.
As a Jew, a Zionist and a proud Israeli I do not want to rule over another people.
Millions of Palestinians reject our control over their lives. We as Jews, Zionists and Israelis know that no amount of money in the world, economic development or promises of support would ever replace our aspirations for a land of our own, a state we can call our own. We have been and will continue to be prepared to fight, kill and die so that we can have a territorial expression of our identity.
Well, the Palestinians are no different than us in this respect. They too are willing to fight, kill and die for a territorial expression of their identity, and no amount of money in the world will bury that aspiration.
There is only one solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict – two states for two peoples. As a Jew, a Zionist and a proud Israeli I want to have prosperous and happy neighbors living in a state of their own, next to Israel, living side-by-side in peace. That is the only way that Israel will enjoy peace. That is why ending this conflict, partitioning the land into two states on the 22%:78% formula with Jerusalem shared as the capitals of both states is the most Zionist solution there is. Anyone who suggests that we prevent the Palestinians from having a state on 22% of the land is leading Israel to a tragic path that risks the entire Zionist idea.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad