Reflections on My Seven Months in Israel
Portside Date:
Author: Sally Gottesman
Date of source:

To my friends and family,

Our seven-month sabbatical in Israel is drawing to a close, and instead of composing an Op-Ed piece for mass publication[1], I am writing to you. I am extremely fearful for Israel's future, but I don't believe saying this in the mass-media will motivate anyone to do anything except nod or shake their head. My hope is you will be inspired to take action if someone you know personally - and hopefully trust - shares with you what I have seen, heard, and experienced.

I love Israel: I have been here nearly 50 times, I speak Hebrew, I have Israeli family and close friends.  I am certain that the Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my lifetime if a diplomatic solution - ending the occupation and creating two states for two peoples - does not happen. This war has only strengthened my certainty that Israel cannot survive if it maintains the occupation.

There.  I have said it.  The Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my own lifetime.

As I heard someone say this spring, "It will be a trauma for the Jewish people like the destruction of the Second Temple." This will happen in our lifetime to all of us - Jews in Israel and America - if we don't act in whatever capacity we can.  Starting now.  Urgently.

Why am I writing about the occupation now, when bombs are falling on Israel and Gaza, when more than 1800 Palestinians are dead and 64 Israeli soldiers? The war has everyone I know, including me, tense and incredibly sad. Why don't I tell you about how I cried last Shabbat at shul when a father with his three young children asked for an aliyah and a blessing because he was home from Gaza for Shabbat with his family. and tonight I wonder if he is home again?  Or maybe I should tell you about Ruhama, the always-smiling nursery school teacher that taught two of our children, whose son was killed in Gaza this week?

How can I best explain this to you?  I have tried to write this letter again and again.  But I always stop writing.  My excuses:  I have too much to share, for I have spent hours these past months - and especially weeks - discussing "the situation" and it is difficult to write.  It is depressing.  I fear only a handful of you will heed my pleas.  I want to go swimming.  I need to take a dress to be fixed.  You can read almost everything I am going to say in others' words, day after day in Israeli and American publications.  Why do I need to write to you?

I need to write to you because I need to do more to insure Israel's future and the future of a Jewish people and Judaism that my children and grandchildren will want to engage with.  I am compelled to do this because Israel is an amazing country.  A miracle of development: there are roads, hospitals, culture and technology, all of which I have been blessed to enjoy these months.   A religious mecca, I have been able to attend remarkable progressive shuls - from Orthodox, Reform, Renewal, and self-described "Israeli"  -- all within blocks of our home.  I have prayed with my friend, a nun, at her convent.  I have cooked food with a Druze woman and asked her about her beliefs.  I have discussed faith with a Muslim friend. I channel my grandfather when I take vast pleasure in reading signs in Hebrew and I marvel at the fact that political discussions - from far left to far right - take place in this language.  In these seven months our family has slept in the desert in the rain, stood silent for two minutes as movement came to a halt on Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day), and explored a land - and its playgrounds - that generations before us only dreamed about.  Most of all though, I have been with striving and loving people who want a better life for themselves, their neighbors, and their children.

Thus, one of the things I am doing is writing to everyone whom I know well-enough to have their email address - even if I normally would leave out people because "I don't know them well" or "I think they might disagree with me" or "because I ask them for money for another cause" (especially if I ask you for money for another cause). I am asking you to read this letter, feel the urgency, think about where you stand, and if you are open to even a piece of what I have to say, to do something to help bring about a diplomatic solution to end the inevitable escalation by extremists on both sides, and war every few years.

I said to one of my sisters the other day, "Bottom line, the draft of my letter is too long."  She asked, "What do you really want to say?"  My best analogy is this: when I read about dati (religious) Jews who are arrested for stealing, I don't get it.  What is the point of their Judaism?

I am afraid that if Israel continues to oppress another people with no end in sight, refuses to agree to a diplomatic solution and allows racist, Messianic, Israeli nationalism to set the county's course, then Israel's soul, its people - and its existence as a democratic country - are in grave danger.  And Jews throughout the world will ask "What is the point of Judaism if this is the behavior of a Jewish country?" All the money in the world spent on Jewish education won't matter because many, many Jews won't want to be part of the Jewish people any more.

You can now skip to the actions I recommend or read my observations from the past seven months:


The overwhelming majority of Israelis I talk with feel hopeless about the political situation.  On a good day a minority of them feel "almost hopeless."  (My Hebrew, although not as well-accented as my kids', is good enough to have a conversation with any Hebrew speaker I meet.)   Israeli Jews know that there must be radical change if Israel is to continue to exist as a democratic country - or perhaps as a country at all - but it is emotionally difficult to think about - let alone know what to do and even more so, to act upon for many people here.  As one friend said to me, "I don't know how to bring about what I hope for given this government and the political situation. so I feel helpless as well."

I recently began telling people who solicit my support for Jewish education and social service projects here that I appreciate what they are doing, but I am putting my tzedakah money into ending the occupation.  Everyone who has responded has said something like this email: "Thanks Sally for your quick e mail and for what you do for Am Yisrael. I must confess that I do understand and agree that ending the occupation is the MOST important thing for Israel. If we continue the occupation it will destroy us. My heart is so heavy these days and I pray for peace and sanity among the Israeli leaders every day, as specially now when we see the awful price all involved are paying and the ramped racism and growing hatred.


The Israelis I know feel imprisoned by the hard-core ideological settlers and their hold on this government - including some who themselves live in settlements.  The right-wing agenda - which is at its core anti-democratic, a "Jews-only" belief system - rules the roost.  This agenda is not hidden: Naftali Bennet, who is one of the most popular and powerful members of the Knesset, leads a political party called "The Jewish Home," whose agenda Americans would call racist.  Israelis tend to use the word "nationalist" to describe the same thing; whatever you call it, this party and those to its right seek to make Israel the home of the Jews and no one else.

More and more frequently I see the bumper sticker "Jews Love Jews."  This is not a message promoting in-marriage.  Rather, it means Israeli Arabs be damned.  Mainstream radio, which I listen to as I drive my kids around Jerusalem, is horrific in how people talk about the Arab community within Israel, let alone those under occupation.  "Mavet l'aravim" [Death to Arabs] is scratched into the windows of busses that I have taken and is chanted openly in the streets during demonstrations, when tensions flare and mobs look for Arabs to assault.  Love of Jews goes only so far, apparently, because "Mavet l'smolonim" - Death to leftists - has also become a chant and a real threat.

The threat of internal violence is more palpable in Jerusalem than Hamas' rockets. A few examples:


One takeaway I have had during these months is that most Israeli Jews have never had a deep relationship with a non-Jew.  Never having had a personal trust relationship with a non-Jew is an unrecognized structural impediment to ending the occupation.  Most of my good friends and family are Jewish, but I have always had friends who aren't Jews.  I've loved non-Jews.  I've trusted non-Jews. I know in my bones that I, a Jew, can trust a non-Jew with my life.  Israeli Arabs are a bigger share of Israel than African-Americans are of the U.S., but Israeli Jews grow up as segregated from them as whites and blacks during Jim Crow - without even the domestic intimacy that existed then.  If you are a Jew who has trusted a non-Jew, you should think about taking an action below.

By order of the Israeli government, Israeli Jews (except for soldiers) cannot enter Areas A and B of the West Bank, where 95% of Palestinians live.  Thus, they can't do as I did many times this sabbatical - with Encounter, with J Street, and on my own with Rachel - see for themselves the cities and villages of the West Bank, or meet the locals.  They can't see Rawabi, a new Palestinian suburb being built that looks exactly like Israeli towns such as Modi'in or Gilo.  They can't hear Palestinians of different political viewpoints talk about what they believe, what they question, and what they hope for.  They can't see Palestinians in their diversity and in their commonality.

Of course, separation means that Palestinians can't see Israelis either.[2]

A man from Ramallah said something that made me very sad.  He said, "The Israelis say we teach hatred in our textbooks - we don't need to! The only Israelis my twelve-year-old son has ever met are soldiers and settlers. He is scared of all Israelis though I tell him that most Israelis are just like us and want to be at home with their kids. and in peace."


Many Israelis on the left feel that their government cynically manipulated them regarding the kidnappings and deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah.  We now know that within days the government was almost totally sure the boys were dead - they had evidence of bullets in the car, which was found with the help of the Palestinian Authority police, as well as the tape to the police.[3]  And yet, they covered it up. Many believe the government wanted to use the time until the bodies were found to intimidate Palestinians, round up Hamas members, and "create Jewish unity."

When the bodies of the boys were found, the government had to end these manipulative deeds.  Instead they began to incite violence and revenge with words. Prime Minister Netanyahu directly called for revenge[4]: "They were murdered in cold blood by human animals.  In the name of the entire Jewish people, I want to say to the dear families - mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers - our hearts are bleeding. We are crying with you. Revenge over the blood of a small child is not the devil's work, and neither is revenge for the blood of a teenager or young man - who was on his way to meet his parents - and whom was never seen again."

The call for revenge was immediately answered when a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped by Jews and burned alive.  I was surprised that Israelis were shocked.  We were at a lovely dinner party in Ramat Gan the night it was confirmed the killers were Jews.  The Israelis around the table were aghast.  One woman, an experienced tour guide in her 50s, said she'd told her tour group, "It is impossible Jews would have committed this murder."  I, on the other hand, wasn't at all surprised. All year I saw layers and layers of Jewish disdain for any "other" - Palestinians, legal foreign workers, illegal foreign workers, asylum seekers.

The War

Actually, it isn't a war because then the government would have to pay benefits, but everyone calls it a war.  One friend - a wonderful Jewish feminist who has been a leader of Women of the Wall - has two sons called up in Gaza, a third the West Bank, and she herself is undergoing cancer surgery next week.  She wrote me, "These are the most challenging times I have ever faced.  I am trying to gain strength and build."  Hamas is terrible.  They want to kill the Jews.  They want to destroy Israel.  These are constants - and we are seeing this particular war at this particular time because Netanyahu and the hawks he fears even further to his right wanted to undermine the unity government of Hamas and Fatah so that Israel would not have to negotiate a peace deal that would end the occupation. Before the war, Hamas was at its weakest point ever - its willingness to join with Fatah was understood by Palestinians as an endorsement of Fatah's acceptance of Israel.  Today, Hamas is stronger in the opinion of West Bank Palestinians than it has ever been.

Last week I sat in on a fascinating foreign policy session hosted by Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Politics, about what happens after the war. Here is a link to the report from the workshop, which addresses the changing dynamics in the Middle East, regional and international mechanisms for mediation and ceasefire implementation, the need to move from conflict management to conflict resolution, the difficulties of demilitarizing the Gaza Strip, the economic rebuilding of Gaza, the future of the Palestinian unity government and the Arab Peace Initiative.

I had lunch with an Israeli friend whose politics are center/center-right. He thinks that when this war is over, the majority of Israelis will demand an end to the hard-core ideological leadership of this country.  I am not sure: few people I have spoken with analyze the future the same way.  However, this was an interesting take from a friend who lost his hearing in one ear in a terrorist attack and who for many years believed in the settlement enterprise.

So what can we do?   Most importantly: don't let the cynical voice go off in your head that says "I can't do anything."  I know you. you know me. our networks are powerful and we have all made change in other arenas because we applied our brains, our financial resources, our leadership, and our connections.  It takes focus and hard work but it can be done.  Remember these motivating ideas 1) When my parents were born, Israel did not exist. Things change.  2) As Rabbi Tarfon said:  It is not yours to complete the task, but you must try.   3) As one West Bank Palestinian said to us about his own work to end the Occupation, "If you think you are too small to affect anything, have you ever tried to sleep in a tent with a mosquito?"
Here are a few ideas for you:

1. Stay knowledgeable:  Know what is happening in Israel and Palestine so you can be informed and speak with confidence.  Three ideas:

2. Take a trip to the West Bank with Encounter.  At first I was going to write, "when you are in Israel, take a trip with Encounter." However, on second thought, if you can you should come to Israel for the purpose of taking an Encounter trip.

3. Get involved with and contribute to organizations that work to end the occupation (and don't support organizations that support the status quo.)

Quick thoughts:  1. Money matters:  The pro-settlement, pro-occupation, anti-Arab, no-peace-ever movement is very well funded.  The government subsidizes this movement with billions of shekels for the settlements. Sheldon Adelson funds this movement. He also owns Israel HaYom, a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and a free daily that is available everywhere.  Pure and simple, money has helped the right to grow. Sadly, there are no such "mega-funders" on the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement that can match the Israeli government and Adelson.  I know it sounds trite - but your contribution to the organizations below will make a difference.  2.  No organization is perfect.  I wish I could give you a perfect organization to fund that will help to bring about two states for two peoples. In the meantime, consider these organizations.

a.  A relatively larger Israeli organization to explore, which also has programming in the USA: New Israel Fund (NIF) - NIF is the largest organization advancing democracy and equality for all Israelis, as stated in Israel's Declaration of Independence.  Established in 1979, NIF has done wonderful work creating an engaged civil society and volunteer sector in Israel.  Recently, NIF decided to focus more of its energies on the political landscape because it is obvious that Israel's democracy - and its people - suffer enormously from the current political atmosphere.  The new initiatives that they are supporting to expand the pro-democracy, progressive camp are important, as liberal democracy is at risk in Israel and overt racism and xenophobia are on the rise.

b.  Some smaller organizations which do important work in Israel (many, but not all, are NIF grantees):

c.  There are several organizations in America to explore:

Despite the failure of Kerry's mediation this spring, the United States plays an important role in this conflict.  After all, Israel received over $3.1 billion of Foreign Military Financing from the United States this year. Please, do something.   I love Israel and each day of my seven months here was profound in its own way.   There are creative, passionate and kind people here.  This is a place where miracles can and do happen.   And yet, I cannot deny my fear and the fears of those around me.   I've heard too many smart people say "it is too complicated."  It is complicated but you are smart enough to understand what is going on - and it is the responsibility of our generation to act for the sake of the Jewish future, if not for the people who live in Israel and Palestine today.  Have a conversation with friends, speak up in your synagogue, join and support an organization, raise your hand - and your voice - in a meeting.  It might be uncomfortable.  I know this first-hand.  But take the risk.  As Anshel Pfeffer wrote this week in Haaretz, "we can blame the Palestinians and the Arabs and the international community all we like, but it was our responsibility to make sure our children wouldn't have to go off and kill or be killed."  Again, please do something.


Sally August 3, 2014

[1] Rachel, my partner, did write two pieces for the Times of Israel.  They are worth reading: [3]

[2] For an excellent article talking about how the separation between Jews and Palestinians has become policy and its influence on what is happening read Ethan Bronner's "A Damaging Distance: For Israelis and Palestinians, Separation is Dehumanizing" from the New York Times. As he points out, "in the heartland of Tel Aviv, where two-thirds of the country lives, [one] can go weeks without ever laying eyes on a Palestinian or ever having to think about one."

[3] "Revealed: Behind the scene hunt to find the kidnapped boys"  by Amos Harel and Yaniv Kuvovitch in Haaretz, July 1, 2014

[4] "Netanyahu on murders of three Israeli Teens: Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay" Haaretz, June 30, 2014

[5]  Israeli citizens are forbidden by Israel to visit most places Encounter visits on the West Bank.  Thus, ironically, diaspora Jews are able to gain a unique perspective not easily afforded Israelis.  However, if you are Israeli, Encounter does run programs in East Jerusalem and Area C.

[Sally Gottesman, Co-Founder and Board Chair of Moving Traditions, has long been committed to Jewish and gender issues, having worked for the Israel Women's Network and The New Israel Fund, and having served on the Boards of American Jewish World Service, Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Funders Network, and The Jewish Women's Archive.  Currently, Sally is on the Executive Committee of her synagogue, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in NYC. A consultant to not-for-profit organizations, Sally graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Management.  The opinions expressed here are her own.]

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