“Don’t come back.”That’s what he said to me; “Don’t come back here, you have no idea how bad it has become since you left.”
I went to Israel on July 23. The flights were all cancelled, so I had to find an alternate route to get to the place I knew in my heart I needed to be. So I flew from Stockholm to Amsterdam to catch an El Al-flight to Tel Aviv, but the journey turned out to be so much harder than I had ever expected.I had sown a small Israeli flag onto the front of my black suitcase. It was a tiny gesture of support, a way to show where I was from and where I was going. I felt proud to display it, and chose not to listen to those who told me I should know better than to show my alliances in the midst of a raging war.
As I go to pick up my bag at Schiphol airport I see right away that something is wrong. My clothes are falling out of big holes, cut from the front and the back of the suitcase. The flag I had so carefully stitched the day before was hanging by threads, black marks at the edges.
I look around, examine the other bags, but they all come down the conveyer belt in perfect condition. I grab my suitcase and go up to a woman from the airline, I just point to the bag, the words allude me. She helps me make a report and leaves me, saying; “this does not look like any accident I have ever seen”.
No, I answered. Me neither.
When I get to the hotel where I was staying before the final leg of my flight I start to panic. I had yet to open the bag, and I realize that I had no idea what exactly had been done to it. I flip it open with a wire hanger, pick at the pieces of what were my belongings. There are holes in my clothing, my travel-speakers seem to have been stabbed right through. But worst of all: someone had opened up my siddur and poured a liquid into it. My beautiful siddur that I had kept for years and years; marking my return to observant life and the escape from assimilation. I had traveled the world with it, and now it was drenched in this sweet-smelling sticky liquid.
I felt nothing short of violated. Degraded. Sad to my very core.
I spent the night trying to take pictures of my torn-up belongings, hoping there was something I could salvage. The more I sifted trough it, the more it became clear that someone had stabbed the bag violently, several times, then poured a soda into it, with some deliberation. Perhaps that was the part that shocked me the most. How petty and spiteful it all was, and that someone had wanted to hurt me enough to risk their job so that they could show me the depths of their hatred.
I arrived in Tel Aviv at 7 pm the next day and went directly to the beach to meet my friend Ruthie. The sun was setting in the sea as we ordered drinks and sat there, in silence. I heard booms in the distance, and I thought to myself that I have never felt safer than I do at this very moment. Because I was home; finally, I had arrived.
I get the call a few days later. That tension I always have from looking over my shoulder has started to release, I’m on the beach sipping coffee and reading some book I was sure to forget the minute I put it down. The voice on the other end is damp with resignation. My friend tells me that Sweden ever so quickly has gone from so-called anti-Zionism to open anti-Semitism, and that no one seems to care. Every day it gets worse, every minute the tone shifts and the shadows grow more ominous.
“Just don’t come back. It’s too late for me. You, you can still change your life for the better.”
Maybe that was when I decided, I don’t know. Maybe it was there, at the beach, or during that late night walk through Jerusalem with my friends after dinner, or when a beautiful man held my hand on the sun-drenched shores of Caesarea. Or maybe, just maybe, I had known all along.
I just can’t live like this any longer. I can’t accept that life consists of long periods of fear and despair, interrupted by the short bursts of happiness I get when I come back to Israel. I can’t raise my kids to hide who they are, I can’t usher them into a society that teaches them they are the other and that being less of who they are is the key to survival.
I just can’t, not anymore.
I got back to Sweden yesterday and something has changed, the shift is so tangible. Within me, yes, but also in the world around me. I take down my Israeli flag that I so proudly hung from my balcony. I’m told it is no longer safe, and I have to make a choice between being open and keeping my children safe. The Palestinian flag hanging from my neighbor’s window is still visible across the courtyard. I notice the injustice, but the outrage is replaced with sadness and fatigue.
I called this my home for 33 years. Yet, I realize now that it isn’t, and it never really was.
I lost my bag on this trip, but through that ordeal I finally found my way. I won’t fight to stay in Egypt; I won’t fear the desert trek.
I think that it’s time to come home.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political commentator and an activist in support of Israel.