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How to Talk about Israel When the Other Is One of Them

May 2002

I love my husband, don't get me wrong. In the twenty-six years of our marriage, we've dealt with difficult issues, and resolved most of them: we celebrate Christmas with his family in Montreal; our daughter became a bat mitzvah; I go to Friday night services alone, then join him for dinner. But there is one thing that will never--at least and especially at this time of conflict in the Middle East--be resolved, something we cannot talk about without tears (on my part) or frustration on both our parts. That is the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

I feel about Israel the same way I do about a family member--my mother, for example: I can complain about her all I want, but heaven help the person (even Guntram, my spouse!) who criticizes her. In other words, I have a gut (read heart) reaction to Israel: it must continue to exist as a Jewish state. That means no Palestinian majority, which means we cannot allow the return of those people who left in 1948.

"But they deserve to return to their homes," he says.

And I say, "What about Operation Moses, the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews out of their place of bondage to freedom in the Promised Land? How can we take care of our own if there is no place to take them to?"

"But no one else has their own sanctuary. Why should Jews have one?"

"Because of our history. What other people has been so persecuted by so many different countries and cultures? We can't allow our people to die out."

Who is right, who is wrong? How can he not understand the need for a Jewish state? How can I not understand the need of the Palestinians to have their own state? So we shoot facts and statistics and horror stories back and forth and back and forth, faster than a championship ping-pong match.

This weekend I went to a day of study sponsored by Jewish Women for Peace in Israel/Palestine, and I learned there that my reaction to my husband's point of view is not intolerance or fanaticism or emotionalism. It's fear. Fear that if I let a little doubt in, if I let him see that doubt, then all the walls will crumble, and before I know it there will be no Jews left in Israel. I feel threatened by talk of a Palestinian state, because what if they get that state and then decide they want more? All of it to the Mediterranean? What if I say, out loud in a public place, that Palestinians deserve their own state? Will I be betraying my people? Will any listener understand the complexities of the issue? Will I be labeled a traitor?

How do I deal with the horrible tension all these questions are creating inside me? The conference was a huge relief: to be able to speak openly about my fears; to hear other people voice similar fears; to be able to question Israel's policies. It was like an oasis in the desert.

Now I am looking forward to an evening of prayer, song and conversation that the clergy of my temple are holding so that people can come together to share their feelings. At this point, perhaps these small oases where we can feel safe are the best we can hope for.

My husband says that if we, who love each other, can't discuss this civilly, then what hope is there for the Middle East? But I am secure in our love, and so we can try, and try again, to talk about this painful topic. Israel and Palestine, though, have no love for each other, nothing binds them together. What hope do they have for peace?

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.

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