It was subconscious, at first. Asked where I was off on holiday, I found myself saying Tel Aviv, rather than Israel. The former carried with it suggestions of a modern, outward-looking destination — a place of late-night dining, gay rights, hi-tech innovation and cosmopolitanism. The latter — the nation — with its connotations of religious and nationalist strife and an abandoned peace process, risked starting a conversation. And frankly, I found myself lacking the will to get into it.
I am a proud Zionist. Having come through the youth movement production line, spent a gap year in Israel and a summer as a tour madricha, the realisation of the Zionist dream has always been close to my heart. At university and beyond, I was moved to talk about it publicly; rush to Israel’s defence in seminars, attend pro-Israel rallies and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.
Yet, lately, I’ve found myself distant from this, wanting to talk less and less about Israel and why it matters. Not because I don’t think it does, or because I believe any less in its legitimacy and necessity, but because of the trends within Israeli politics, and a feeling that I don’t want to have to defend them.
I’m talking about the intransigence of so many Israeli politicians when it comes to striving for peace, or the unwavering commitment to settlement building. I’m talking about developments that come across as profoundly intolerant, from access to the Western Wall to the Anti-Boycott Law or recent revelations about Bedouins losing their citizenship. And I’m talking about the hawkish Netanyahu Government, with its genuflecting to the religious right, and its willingness to embrace President Trump even as neo-Nazism flared (it took Bibi days to issue even the most lacklustre condemnation).
Of late, Israel has occasionally felt like an embarrassing relative; someone you love but whose views you’d rather they keep to themselves. And because everything about Israel is so black and white, it’s easier to look away; easier to keep shtum than voice disagreement. And I suspect I am not alone; many of us in the Anglo-Jewish community are keen to defend Israel but nervous to point out its flaws. We are happy to visit Netanya or Herzliya, but less willing to think about what’s happening elsewhere.
I am that hypocrite, anyway, because I jetted off to Tel Aviv last month for a serving of sun, sea and sand. However, keen to do more than eat our weight in ice cream, we drove up north. Unintentionally, it became something of a whirlwind tour of Zionist landmarks, including Degania, the first kibbutz, and several others, and Zichron Ya’akov founded by first aliyah pioneers in 1882.
We enjoyed that particularly Israeli pastime of going on tiyul, and slept in a Kinneret camp-site populated by scores of better-prepared families (both Jewish and non, holidaying side by side) who watched our tent-construction efforts with amusement.
We finished our trip at the cemetery in Netanya, where my paternal grandparents are buried, before driving to Ramat Gan to visit a very new Israeli — our six-week-old niece.
Maybe it was the heat, but I started to remember what Israel stands for, and why it still matters so much. The trip, short as it was, reminded me how astonishing the story of the “first in Zion” was, how remarkable the state’s existence was —and remains.
Roaming land that connects the original chalutzim with the generations since, walking in the footsteps of those who moved across the world because they believed in something, and considering a country that was a pipe dream when my grandparents were teenagers, made me feel a renewed sense of pride. And not just pride, but hope, too.
That’s not to gloss over the issues around Israel’s creation, or the extremism on both sides, nor to ignore the trends I mentioned above. It’s to say that there is still an ideal to fight for, a dream to keep alive. And it’s to say that those of us in the diaspora who value that dream need to keep our eyes open; engage rather than look away when Israel fails to live up to it.
With the Balfour Declaration centenary and Israel’s 70th on the horizon, Zionism — both the historical and the contemporary — will be in the spotlight. While it might be easier to sigh at the latest Netanyahu decision than turn the page, it’s not enough.
If we still believe in Israel, if we are still inspired by Zionism, we need to pay attention, to re-engage. And, when necessary, we need to campaign for its leaders to do better just as vigorously as we would defend its existence.
That’s my New Year’s resolution, anyway.