Guest Opinion

Fear and shame: Sabbatical in a war zone

By: Deborah Hertz
   The second Monday in April fell between Holocaust Memorial Day and Memorial Day. It was a teaching day, and by 6 a.m. I was driving to Tel Aviv. Listening to the radio, I caught up with the latest on Colin Powell’s visit. My optimistic American heart surged. Surely we clever Americans could solve this terrible mess.
   Feeling quite upbeat, I sat in the university cafeteria working on my lecture. Later, after class, I wandered into the campus green, where hundreds were gathered for the ceremony for the fallen soldiers. Then, over lunch, a colleague and I discussed post-modernism and Yiddish literature, the politics of the early kibbutzim and Karl Marx’s self-hatred. We avoided politics.
   But on my way home, the rows of Israeli flags everywhere posted for the upcoming Independence Day caused a knot in my stomach. For on that Monday in April, Operation Defense Shield was still going strong. I so wanted to celebrate the birthday of this zany, lively, sassy place. But I could not celebrate while bulldozers were destroying Palestinian civil society. The Jewish past and the Jewish present were utterly at odds. The complexity of the moment was overwhelming.
   For months now, my parents have called regularly to ask when we are bringing their grandchildren home. We usually answer evasively. We tell them and ourselves that if we take taxis instead of buses, if we eat only at restaurants with burly guards with guns, then we can keep our dear children alive for the rest of the semester.
   Our Israeli friends also call frequently. They tell us they would frankly understand if we were packing. They know all too well the terrifying sirens of the ambulances. They can empathize with our fears when our teen-ager leaves at midnight for the local disco, breezily announcing that he will return at 3 a.m. Israeli kids party late.
   The reality is that we very much enjoy daily life in Israel. Perhaps we have adjusted to the danger. But moment for moment, my fear for our lives and my shame at what Israel is doing are both larger than the odd adrenaline of living through historic tragedy.
   Israel is at a crossroads. In 1948, as the future of our people hung in the balance, we took a moral leap and founded our state. But now we have taken too much land and displaced too many. We have squandered the world’s sympathy and our moral capital is gone.
   I know. I know. Things might have gone so well in 2000, at Camp David. Israelis are understandably obsessed with that moment. Many here are heartbroken that what Barak offered was not accepted on the Palestinian side. Oslo is dead and gone. But although the Palestinian leadership chose not to found their state at that juncture, Israel still has much blood on its hands.
   The world has long paid attention to our pain. We have transformed our suffering into a strong nation state. Now, it is in our own interests for us to attend to the pain of another people — our Palestinian neighbors. If our history means anything, it means we must share this land. If we do not, the terror will never end. Operation Defense Shield may have bought the quiet my little family needs for two months. But it is only a matter of time before the terror will return.
   At the end of June, I hope that we four will all still be alive, and we will fly home to Newark. Sitting around the elegant tables of Princeton, our loving friends will listen to our stories. Perhaps they will think us brave. But here, beautiful people on all sides will undoubtedly continue to die. Now, before it is too late, Israel and her friends abroad must find a way to end the occupation and help the Palestinians found their state.
Deborah Hertz, a Princeton Township resident, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and this year is a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University.