Symposium: Judith Shulevitz

Symposium: Judith Shulevitz

I have been to Israel four times: twice as a child, twice as an adult. Each time, I went as a tourist. Among serious Jews, that’s a fairly shameful admission. I have never gone to Israel to study or work. I went for—well, I wouldn’t call it play, either, though it was only occasionally unfun. I went because I had to, more or less. The first two times, my parents took me; the second two times, I took my children, who go to a Jewish day school and are so primed to see and taste all things Israel-related that it would have been almost cruel to take a family trip anywhere else.

I’m not defending my record, which is that of someone who ignored her Judaism until she was grown up, with work and a family life that made stints overseas hard to arrange. Like a Zionist of old, I still dream of re-organizing my life so as to make aliyah. But maybe my status as an amateur on Israel is useful in this context. Maybe it makes me more like the majority of American Jews than the professional commentators usually asked to write about the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

To be precise, I was asked to write about my relationship with the state of Israel, which struck me, at first, as impossible, because I don’t have a relationship with the state of Israel. I have some salty opinions about the state of Israel, especially since Benjamin Netanyahu became its prime minister again. My relationship, though, is with the place called Israel, with its extreme landscapes and eclectic architecture; modern cities and ancient cities; villages and kibbutzim and moshavim; aggressive street mores and religious radicals. When I say place, of course, I also mean people, with many of whom I share a history and certain presuppositions, and through whom I understand what little I understand about the place. To the degree that I have insight into ha-matzav—the situation—it’s because I’ve been to settlements on the West Bank, where I have relatives, and Ramallah, where personal connections led me to a Palestinian pollster who had a gift for decoding his environment for an American Jew. The Israel I feel bonded to is an amalgam of those places and people, as well as the synagogues and art galleries and cafés I’ve been to, the Hebrew I’ve been able to eavesdrop on, the pathetically small number of Israelis I know well, and—because I’m the sort of person who comes to know the world mainly by reading about it and dreaming my way toward it—the history and literature I’ve read. Obviously, the place called Israel is shaped through and through by the state of Israel, its government, military, judiciary, schools, cultural institutions, economic policies, and so on. But, like Ahad Ha’am in his day, I would be horrified to think that the whole of Israel could be reduced to the exercise of, as he harshly put it, “material power and political dominion.”

That, I have to say, is what irks me about the l...

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