As a whatever kind I want to call myself Jew, the history, presence and land of Israel continue to exert a great deal of influence on my world view and the way I live my life here in the US. Israel, just in case there is anyone out there who does not already know this, is at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank to the east, and Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest. More importantly than its historically unfortunate location, at least in my mind, Israel, in its Basic Laws, defines itself as a Jewish and Democratic State, even though this tiny and newish country has no official religion. I won’t go into a lot of the history or current politics, but just want to give a little background about how and why Israel came to be, and why it still is so important to me, even now, nearly forty years since my one and only visit there.
Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people and is often referred to as a Jewish state. The country’s Law of Return grants all Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship. Since the existence of the earliest Jewish diaspora, the hopes and yearnings of Jews living in exile have been an important theme of the Jewish belief system, based on historical ties but also, unfortunately, sometimes as a matter of life and death for anybody who is identified as a Jew, even if they don’t self-identify as one, in some places in the world even today.
The first wave of modern Jewish migration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, known as the First Aliyah, began in 1881, as Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. Pogrom is a Russian word and is defined by Wikipedia as a violent riot aimed at massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. Although the Zionist movement already existed in practice, Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl is credited with founding political Zionism, a movement which sought to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, thus offering a solution to the so-called Jewish Question (this phrase is an eerily familiar carryover to the 20th Century) of the European states. The Second Aliyah (1904–14), began after the Kishinev pogrom, which was not even the last one to happen in Europe.
During World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. The Declaration stated that Britain intended for the creation of a Jewish “national home” within the Palestinian Mandate. After World War II, Britain found itself in intense conflict with the world Jewish community over Jewish immigration limits to this promised Jewish “national home.” At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees sought a new life far from their destroyed communities in Europe. Palestine-based Jewish/Zionist activists attempted to bring these refugees to the “Promised Land” but many were turned away or rounded up and placed in offshore and/or barb wire enclosed detention camps by the British. Finally, after a lot of strife and some death in the interim, Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations on 11 May 1949.
My Jewish father and his divorced mother were able to leave Germany, though I do not at this point know exactly when or how, and get to England sometime in the 1930s. My dad was born in 1930, so I’m pretty sure he was just a small boy when they made this big move, all on their own, I imagine, and descended in the strange big city of London just as WWII was looming on America’s horizon, and may have been descending, along with bombs, from the skies over the city, courtesy of a possible pending and potentially deadly for my dad German invasion. From 7 September 1940, one year into the war, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. Mom tells me that it was on one of those nights, as people streamed into the deep-level shelters that were built under London Underground stations to protect its citizens during The Blitz, that Grandma met the person who would make it possible for her to make a living as a cook for Turkish embassy and military personnel stationed in the city. I guess her acquisition of this position, as well as her understandable concern for the safety of her one and only child, led her to find alternate housing for Dad with a Quaker family in what should have been the more peaceful countryside in Surrey. Mom has often told anyone who’ll listen, that Grandma had to give her written permission for Dad to stay outside as he watched the fireworks of the German bombs that landed elsewhere, though I’d guess still uncomfortably close by for any mother’s comfort.
I’ll probably never know if, when, or how much abuse my grandparents and parents endured as Jews in Germany, in England, and even in the good old USA. I’ll probably never know if they ever feared for their lives during any of those incidents. I just know that, for whatever reason, be it stubbornness or tradition or even possibly hope or pride, they have always been and will always be Jewish, and they passed this belief system on to me and my sister. As I was growing up in Southern California, to the best of my recollection, I experienced just some mild peer-related discomfort due to my little discussed Jewish heritage and lesser observed Jewish traditions, like celebrating Hanukkah instead of Xmas and missing school on the High Holidays. Way back then, in the 1960s and 70s, the bat mitzvah, a ceremony recognizing a girl’s coming of age within Judaism, was not as common as it is today and I don’t know if my parents had ever even considered it as an option for me or my sister. They did, however, send us to religious school, well into our high school years, with the culmination of that experience and education taking place in a confirmation ceremony at the Temple, right around the end of tenth grade, I believe. That was a pretty impressionable time for me, and probably for most kids, as we painfully, in fits and starts, matured into adults. That was also a time of a lot of turmoil in and around Israel, as it fought a series of wars with its much larger Arab neighbors, who at various times since its birth in 1948, and from various locations, had tried to destroy the Jewish state (kind of like Iran and what still exists of the Syria’s government today) and sweep all its Jewish citizens into the Mediterranean, assuming no non Arab countries would take them as refugees, as few had thirty years earlier.
I had Jewish friends in college and joined the Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, on my campus for my last year or two there. I had a Jewish boyfriend that I’d met in band there, though by the time I got my degree in 1976, I knew I had forced my mom to the harsh realization that her baby would not emerge from there with the degree she wanted me to have, the Mrs.! She did, however, offer me, possibly as a substitute for the missed bat mitzvah and to maybe find a future Jewish husband, an all-expenses paid six week trip to Israel and Europe that summer. I took this trip with the non-college grad daughter of one of Mom’s divorced Jewish friends and it was of course organized by a Jewish travel agency.
In July 1976 an airliner was hijacked during its flight to Tel Aviv by Palestinian guerrillas and landed at Entebbe, Uganda. Israeli commandos carried out an operation in which 102 out of 106 Israeli hostages were successfully rescued. I was touring Israel as these events took place. I think we had just left the Golan Heights, where it was I could feel how dangerously close the area captured from Syria and occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War was to populated and exposed areas in Israel. When we entered Jerusalem and shopped in its open air markets we saw, and may have even picked up on our bus, Israeli soldiers who strolled or sat casually in their olive uniforms, machine guns over their soldiers, which I initially did my best to try to overlook.
During the two weeks I was in Israel, the feeling grew inside me, though I have only a vague memory now of how it actually came to be. In the middle of all that potential danger, I felt safe. Given the political direction of my own country now, where, heaven forbid, discrimination among citizens based on religion could become a real fact of life, and in light of the discrimination actually experienced by own family on that basis not so long ago, I am still comforted by the reality of Israel today.