My Word: Fights, flights, Independence Day and feeling ‘davka’

With typical Israeli informality I was often asked what made me decide to leave England’s green pastures for what was still very much a dusty, developing country.

May 2, 2019 21:20
Israelis watching the IAF Independence Day show on the Tel Aviv beach

Israelis watching the IAF Independence Day show on the Tel Aviv beach . (photo credit: REUTERS)

In 1977 I made my first trip to Israel, the country which I had followed with the blind love of youth since the Olympic Massacre five years before violently grabbed my attention. I consider it my own personal nose-thumbing at terrorism that my Zionist awakening took place as a preteen davka because of the PLO’s carnage. I have been here so long – 40 years this summer – that I use the term davka naturally and struggle to find a translation or even a near equivalent in English. Its meaning ranges from “precisely” to “contrarily” depending on context.

During that first journey, my much-loved gold ring was stolen; I suffered from the summer heat; and I was pestered by local men, without having enough Hebrew to verbally defend myself. Nonetheless, davka, I had a great time.

Hence, two years later – with eyes much wider open, sunglasses instead of rose-tinted spectacles, and a nascent Hebrew vocabulary I will not be sharing in a family paper – I arrived on aliyah, officially became an Israeli and joined a pre-army Nahal group. Sometimes my jaw dropped and my eyes widened further, but ultimately I learned to overcome the culture shock, heat shock, and language barrier and made this indisputably my home. Indisputably by other Israelis, that is. I now realize that some people don’t want Jews living anywhere on the planet.

A lot happened in those two years between my first visit and my permanent move. In 1977, few would have predicted that by 1979 there would be a peace agreement (albeit a cold one) between Israel and Egypt. And even fewer would have wagered that the flourishing relations Israel enjoyed with Iran would be a thing of the past as Ayatollah Khomeini launched the revolution that would result in the country renaming itself the Islamic Republic.

With typical Israeli informality, which I still find either comforting or infuriating – like the word davka, it depends on context – I was often asked what made me decide to leave England’s green pastures for what was still very much a dusty, developing country. There were few private vehicles, a dearth of phones, an exceedingly unreliable electricity supply and a general lack of luxury items (a category which could mean anything from vacuum cleaners to sunscreen.)

It took me a while to realize there was an underlying, existential question: How could I leave the comparative safety of London (IRA bombing campaigns notwithstanding) for a country that had been shaken to the core by the trauma of the Yom Kippur War? The fact that Israel won the war in 1973 didn’t count for much. The huge toll in IDF casualties and the shock attack launched on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar left Israel feeling unsafe and unsure of itself.

To me, the war six years before seemed a very long while ago. Sadly, unknown to us all, we were closer to the next war, which started out as Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 and dragged on for years as the (First) Lebanon War.

When I arrived in Israel, I lived on a kibbutz in the South, close to Gaza, a place we could freely visit. My family, on the other hand, lived in the North, where there were constant terror incursions and Katyusha attacks from Lebanon.

My sympathy for residents of the western Negev today stems both from having lived in the area and from experience of what the constant threat of rockets and terrorism feels like. The switch of North to South as the country’s hot spots is also not something I would have predicted. The lessons of the withdrawal from Gaza and increased number and range of rocket attacks have been absorbed by Israelis. Collectively, between the explosive results of the Oslo Accords and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad violence from Gaza, our eyes have definitely been opened to the consequences of deals involving land for promised peace.

IN ANOTHER strange (and sad) inversion, when Israel suffered from the First and Second Intifadas, Jewish communities abroad seemed much safer. Less than 20 years ago, friends and relatives in the UK and elsewhere were offering Israelis a refuge or at least a temporary respite if they needed it. Now, with the rise of global Islamic terrorism and the increase in hate crimes by the far-Right, Israelis are encouraging friends and family to make the move here.

Last week in particular, the dangers from Right and Left became horribly clear. They share the same antisemitic tropes and rhetoric. “With Liberals like this, who needs enemies?” I wondered with the publication in the International edition of The New York Times of the caricature of a blind Donald Trump wearing a kippah being led by Star of David-wearing dog with Benjamin Netanyahu’s face. At least one riddle has been solved: No wonder there is so little international outcry and action concerning the antisemitic material that regularly appears in Palestinian school textbooks. The West is literally blind to it.

The same blind hatred was behind the despicable attack on the Chabad synagogue at Poway, near San Diego, in which Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a 60-year-old woman at prayer, was mowed down by teenage white supremacist John Earnest. Among those injured was an eight-year-old girl, Noya Dahan, and her uncle Almog Peretz. Their family had moved to the US to escape the rocket attacks on their homes in Sderot. Chillingly, this was not their first brush with antisemitism in sunny San Diego: Four years ago, the Dahans’ home and garage were daubed with swastikas during the Passover holiday.

Figures released ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day this week note an increase in violent attacks on Jews and Jewish targets around the world last year. The 13 Jewish fatalities include the 11 killed in the shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.

The Pittsburgh attack was also by a white supremacist, but there is no reason for the far-Left to feel morally superior. It takes a lot to shock me nowadays, especially as Jeremy Corbyn leads the British Labour Party (another of those nasty surprises of recent years). Still, the call by Labour’s Amanda Bishop on the Facebook forum of the party’s Brighton & Hove branch to march on the local synagogue resonated particularly strongly as I read about it on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“No, no, no!… We can’t allow this to go on,” wrote Bishop. “We need to march about this to the Synagogue in Hove, all of us members in Brighton.” Bishop was protesting the suspension of Alexandrina Braithwaite, a Labour candidate to the council, after she blamed the Rothschilds on social media of being “responsible for almost every war on Earth”; used the not particularly original term of   “IsraHell” for Israel; and accused Israel of carrying out genocide against the Palestinians. At least Braithwaite had been suspended.

I heard similar accusations – the Jews control the world media and banks and Israeli Jews are systematically targeting Palestinian children – at a UN-sponsored conference on the Palestinians held in Moscow last September. Although a few UN and Russian officials privately apologized afterwards, none thought it was their duty to speak out as I and other Israeli panelists were being heckled. They apologized that I “had been upset.” Not about what was said.

Has antisemitism become so common that it doesn’t stick out to non-Jewish eyes? Are we Jews just meant to take it quietly, as if nothing has changed?

Well, something has changed: Next week, the country marks that uniquely Israeli phenomenon of back-to-back Remembrance Day and Independence Day. Some 40 years after my aliyah, the list of victims of terrorism and war I personally know is painfully long, but my gratitude at being able to celebrate Israel’s independence here in Jerusalem runs deeper and stronger than ever.

Israel is home and I love it. Not blindly. Davka.

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