Going Home to Israel

by Inge Lederer-Gibel

Ms. Lederer-Gibel is a free-lance journalist, formerly based in new York. She recently immigrated to Israel, her ancestral homeland.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 18, 1987, p. 162. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In her return to Israel the author discovered that the values of progressive Judaism and Zionism to which she was committed have been deeply eroded in the past decade by forces over which there seems to be little control. The import of cheap Arab labor, the eroding of progressive Judaism and Zionism, Israel’s dependency on the U.S., the growth of fundamentalism and other issues of importance have undermined Israel.

This essay marks for me the end of Galut, of exile, I and the realization of my half-century dream of returning to the land of my ancestors. It is an essay, too, about new beginnings. For although I have visited Israel almost every year for the past 20 and have very little to learn about it, knowing Israeli life in one’s head is not the same as internalizing it on a daily basis. That kind of knowing comes only when one has moved in permanently, unpacked, and has no return ticket.

It’s not for nothing that one of the first phrases they teach in Hebrew language class is kol chatchalah kasha -- all beginnings are difficult. New beginnings, no matter how much desired, dreamed of, worked toward, are difficult. I’ve found, for example, that despite the lip-service paid to Israel’s need for Western aliyah -- the immigration of Jews from the West -- many native-born Israelis resent these newcomers almost as much as they do Palestinians. In the U.S. I always thought of myself as a refugee; now I’m an "American" or, ludicrous as it may seem, an "Anglo-Saxon."

More serious, and more painful, is my discovery that the values of progressive Judaism and Zionism to which I am committed have been deeply eroded in the past decade by forces over which we seem to have little control.

The influx of cheap Arab labor from the occupied territories has undermined one of the most basic concepts of mainstream Zionism, avodah ivrit -- the sacredness of Jewish labor, the idea that Jews must stop being middlemen, as they were so often forced to be in the Diaspora, and do their own dirty work. While it is undoubtedly true that the wages of Palestinians. from the territories who work in construction and low-level hotel jobs raise the standard of living in their communities -- a fact frequently touted by those Israelis who support the status quo -- nevertheless Israel was a healthier place, a more Zionist and progressive nation, when we drained the swamps, built the roads and the houses and waited on our own tables.

Israel’s ever-increasing dependency on the U.S. has also produced unpleasant, even dangerous, side effects. The impact of American consumer culture on the developing world may be nowhere more evident than here. Israelis who don’t necessarily want to live in the land where everyone (it is assumed) has a beautiful home with the latest electronic gadgets, a swimming pool and fast car do their best to clone that way of life. The young would like at least to visit the U.S., not because they are impressed by its democracy and First Amendment, but because they are tantalized by designer jeans and discos.

This situation leads to a third major Israeli problem: the growth of fundamentalism. Like the spread of American culture, this phenomenon is scarcely unique to Israel. Fundamentalism is what many people turn to when they are frightened of challenges to existing values and cherished beliefs, and when alternative leadership falters. In Israel there is a growing drug and alcohol problem, and many young people have embraced a hedonistic lifestyle. A nation in which the youth are regarded not only as the future but as one symbol for a million Jewish children lost in the Holocaust, a nation traditionally proud of the idealism, scholarship and selflessness of the young, fears that those youth are being seduced by alien values. The teen-age suicide rate is up, stabbings occur in discos, and it is no longer safe for young women to hitchhike -- quite apart from the threat of terrorism. It is not surprising, then, that the power of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious minority is growing.

Israel’s convoluted electoral system has always given the small religious parties great leverage. And the secular Jews who founded modern Israel granted the Orthodox the right to control matters of personal life (marriage and divorce, for example) not only for pragmatic reasons (they wanted the political support of this group) but also because they realized that many, if not most, victims of the Holocaust came from its ranks. Nor did even the most militant secularists fail to recognize that without the religious fervor that looked forward to celebrating Passover "next year in Jerusalem," modern political Zionism might never have been born. On this question, what Shlomo Avinery, the Hebrew University scholar and former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said of himself is unfortunately true for many Israelis: "The synagogue I don’t attend is Orthodox." Progressive Judaism -- as represented in the U.S. by Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist streams -- has never really established itself here, although Reform and Conservative groups are now making a greater effort to do so.

The indifference of those who don’t care much for religion and the passion of those who care desperately, fanatically, have together created a climate that would make our national mothers and fathers -- the Ben Gurions no less than the first Ray Kook -- weep. This summer, after dozens of bus shelters were burned by ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students to protest advertisements featuring women in suggestive dress and posture, a synagogue near Tel Aviv was vandalized in what appeared to be an act of retaliation by ultra-secular Jewish youth. Whole neighborhoods are torn apart over the issue of blockbusting. Orthodox families, who have or will have many more children than secular families, buy up all available apartments and then pressure their less Orthodox neighbors into conformity or flight. This past Yom Kippur, to which I had looked forward for 17 years -- so that I could worship with my daughter, who has been living here -- turned out to be a bitter day. It presented me with a miserable choice. In the neighborhood I now share with my daughter and her family, the only worship service available was Orthodox -- though I tried to find enough people who wished to pray together in an egalitarian, progressive service. So my daughter, unwilling to sit in a separate section for women, refused to go. In principle, I agreed with her decision. But how could I be in Jerusalem and not say Kaddish, the prayer for the departed, for my father and my Nazi-decimated family? After struggling between my desire to coax my daughter to accompany me and my shame at even considering asking her to go against all that I have taught her about the right of women to be equal in every area of life, I went by myself. If I have ever romanticized Orthodoxy -- and I have -- all romantic notions died forever as I sat not behind the traditional mehitza (dividing curtain) or balcony of my childhood, but in a separate room, forbidden to touch the Torah, excluded from anything but being a distant spectator.

On the other hand, I could have found myself in the Jerusalem Reform congregation where a local Orthodox rabbi and some of his followers broke into the service, tried to grab the Torah scrolls being carried by men and women, and suggested that the women were "undressed whores" (some wore sleeveless dresses) and the synagogue was "a house of prostitution."

For me it boils down to wanting, at the simplest gut level, to spend the years left to me in a land where I’m not in the minority, a land where I don’t have to listen to Christmas carols from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

One person who showed deep insight into my move, herself the American-born daughter of Jews who fled Germany, is a staunch believer in American capitalism who does not share my socialist vision or my belief in the coming of the Messiah and in the possibility that the arrival of this person (or the messianic time) depends on Israel or its message to the world. Nevertheless, she recently demonstrated her understanding when she wrote to me, "Happy birthday -- your first in your third country (but first homeland)" She knows that I love what America stands for, but that for all the years I lived in it I never felt of it. She knows that among the first words I heard in English were, "You dirty Jew, why don’t you go back where you came from," and that throughout my life in the U.S. I kept running into one version or another of that sentiment.

I will continue to work for peace and justice here, as I did in the U.S., but it will be work among Jews and Arabs, and among Jews who are divided by theological or ethnic origins, or by attitudes toward women. And unlike the various movements in which I worked over the years in America, my sisters and brothers, when they have enough of me or forget themselves, at least won’t turn on me by calling me "dirty Jew." Here, yesterday’s comrade can’t tell me to go back where I came from -- to Waldheim’s Vienna, soaked in Jewish blood -- because I am back, back to the beginnings of my people, my land. It is a land that I, along with members of Israel’s large peace movement, believe must be shared. But within its borders -- which many of us are willing to see shrink for the sake of peace -- it is ours in perpetuity.

The headlines here are full of unpleasant news. Is it true that Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl both believe that the plot to blow up an El Al airliner (on which the now-convicted Arab named Hindawi sent a small, deadly bomb along with a woman carrying his unborn child) was really masterminded by Israel? Can it be that the Israelis arrested in the U.S. for selling arms to Iran did so at the behest of the U.S. government? Has it turned out that a young man termed unstable by some Western newsmen who spoke with him in Australia, before he sold the London Times the pictures and story of Israeli nuclear capability -- and who is now on trial -- did what he did because of his radical politics, his conversion to Christianity, or his desire for money? How would the U.S. treat one of its citizens who did something similar?

Nations and revolutionary movements that start out with the highest moral purposes, and are guided by the aspiration to build a society based on justice and equality, have only a short time before their age of innocence ends. However magnificent its dream, a nation must be judged, like an individual, on the means it uses, not just the ends it desires. Israel’s age of innocence is over. There are those who do not hesitate to exploit our deepest fears and our deepest loyalties. Some Israelis wonder if post-1967 Israel has truly followed the only path to survival. History books are filled with examples of nations and revolutionary movements which fell from grace in the struggle to survive. This then is our dilemma: Can we achieve both physical and ethical survival? Can we, in rejecting 2,000 years of powerlessness, remain (or become) that prophesied nation of priests, that light unto the other nations, a Jewish nation in the best and not the narrowest, tribalistic sense? Whatever the outcome, I am now part of the search for the answers to those questions.