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Zionist whiplash
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Zionist whiplash

It’s Zionist Whiplash Week at my home in New Jersey, where a coincidental (or not) series of programs exposed all the contradictions and complexities of loving Israel in a troubling time.

On Sunday morning I listened to a recent episode of This American Life, the public radio show, dedicated to reporting by Dan Ephron and Nancy Updike on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Twenty years have not cooled Israeli passions or despair over what TAL host Ira Glass called Israel’s “Kennedy assassination.” Ephron, whose book about the Rabin assassination, Killing a King, is out this month, related the despairing reality that 50 percent of right-wing Israelis and a third of the general population don’t believe that Yigal Amir and his brother killed the prime minister. 

This, despite the fact that Ephron interviews a very smug — and very free — Hagai Amir, who breezily relates his role in plotting the shooting and supplying the arsenal from which Yigal — another unapologetic confessor to the crime — chose the weapon that killed Rabin. Israelis on the street tell Ephron and Updike that Israeli intelligence was behind the killing. A settler leader plays the favorite game of conspiracy theorists — seize on the small to discredit the large — but then has no explanation for the inconvenient fact that Rabin died. Maybe it was a stroke, he says. 

But nothing in the whole hour was as depressing as the fact that, 20 years later, Israel seems farther away from peace than on the night of Nov. 4, 1995. Or that those who deny Amir’s role in the killing also seem to boast that the assassination thwarted Rabin’s “betrayal” of Israel and the Jewish people. Who knows what might have changed if the fiercely pragmatic Rabin had lived? But unlike what happened in the aftermath of the King or Kennedy assassinations, the forces of rejection only benefited from Rabin’s murder. 

That night I went to a screening of Above and Beyond, Nancy Spielberg’s documentary about the Americans who volunteered in 1948 for Israel’s fledgling air force. The morning’s despair was replaced with awe and pride for the audacity, purpose, and rightness of those who fought for and established the state. The cocky World War II veterans who flew, and in some cases delivered, Israel’s second-hand aircraft say almost to a man that they were out for adventure, and not driven by any great passion for Judaism or Zionism. But all were transformed by the experience and the example set by their Israeli comrades.

If I had been ready that morning to wash my hands of the whole issue, that evening I was reminded of the precariousness of the Jewish state, the justification for its existence, and the hope it can inspire even in those beaten down by decades of violence. 

But then I couldn’t decide if the movie’s idealism was an “antidote” to my pessimism, or contained the seeds of what has become a bitterly divided country and the fading hopes for a resolution. Perhaps in 1949 they couldn’t have seen the Palestinian crisis that was brewing, but it was clear to everybody after the Six-Day War, wasn’t it? When did the rational idealism of Israel’s founders become an oxymoron, to be replaced by what former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin calls today’s “extreme Jewish messianism”? 

Zionist Whiplash Week wasn’t over, however. The next night I heard a talk at my Teaneck synagogue by Mike Kelly, author The Bus on Jaffa Road, his riveting account of the terrorist attacks that, in 1995 and 1996, took the lives of three young Americans: Sara Duker, Matt Eisenfeld, and Alisa Flatow. Suddenly the cataclysmic global events and political abstractions of the day before were replaced by the intensely personal. Arline Duker, Sara’s mom, introduced Kelly. “In many ways,” she said of the book, “I had Sara back.” Kelly alluded to the diplomatic and legal repercussions of the murders and recalled his interview with Hassan Salameh, the unrepentant mastermind of her murder. But mostly Kelly focused on who Sara was: a budding and meticulous scientist, a spiritual woman trying to integrate her faith and her feminism, an idealistic Barnard student who would engage with the homeless woman selling crocheted bookmarks near the campus. Kelly described how he takes inspiration from a quote Sara had tucked into her diary: “It is the scientist’s job to deal with the rational. The writer is privileged to go beyond, and prod the mystical elements that God has left beyond our understanding.” 

It is the job of those who care for Israel to understand what it means to us: a political entity torn up by its own internal contradictions and let down by its leaders; a vulnerable state surrounded by enemies and buffeted by religious fanaticism; or merely a home for Jews, young and old, for whom a bus ride to school or a walk to the market should not be a life or death proposition.

To be a Zionist is to wrestle with all these understandings, the rational and the mystical. 

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