The column | Refusing to give up on Israel

I’ve never paraphrased author Erich Segal before, but what can you say about a 66-year-old nation that is being ripped apart? Unlike the young woman in Segal’s “Love Story,” Israel isn’t dying, not even close. But the country and its people are in agony.

I just returned from two weeks in the Jewish state, where I took part in an international Jewish media conference. Hope was still high that the three kidnapped Israeli teens would be found alive, and we heard from government representatives about how as journalists we could help them present Israel’s case abroad — a task not all of us assumed was ours.

The conference ended June 25, five days before the boys’ bodies were discovered. They were buried the next day as a nation grieved and soldiers continued their hunt for the two Hamas operatives presumed to be their killers. Calls for revenge were rampant.

That night, a 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem was kidnapped. His corpse was found the next morning, badly beaten and charred. The autopsy revealed he had been burned alive. I can barely write those words without gagging. Belying early rumors that this was a criminal rather than nationalistic killing, six Jews with extremist connections were arrested; three confessed, re-enacting the grisly murder for police.

Israelis, already reeling from the tragedy of the three murdered Jewish teens, recoiled in fresh horror and disbelief. The streets exploded in anger. Palestinian youths rioted in Jerusalem and then in Arab towns throughout the north, burning vehicles and clashing with police. Jewish men rampaged through downtown Jerusalem, beating up any Arabs they could find. It got real ugly, real fast.

Things have been bad in Israel before — when has peace ever reigned in the Holy Land? But I haven’t seen this level of gut hatred spill onto the streets since the late ’90s, when Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was followed by years of bloody suicide attacks.

But still I hoped. Maybe the tide would turn. There are still voices of reason amid the madness.

Then, on July 4, Sayed Kashua wrote that he is leaving the country.

Kashua, 38, is an Arab Israeli intellectual — a writer, filmmaker, columnist and, most famously, creator of the hit Israeli sitcom “Arab Labor,” which pillories Arab and Jewish Israelis alike. Born in the central Arab town of Tira, he was sent as a boy to a Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, and like the star of his sitcom, he now lives in two worlds in a delicate balance of competing identities. In 2010, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival honored him with its Freedom of Expression award. In handing Kashua the award at the Castro Theatre, then–Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor called his sitcom “the best television we’ve produced in the last decade.”

In short, Sayed Kashua is one of those voices of reason Israel so desperately needs.

And now, apparently, he is giving up. If someone like him gives up, what does that say about the future of coexistence?

“My children will soon be back [from Jewish camp] and we will leave this place,” Kashua wrote in his July 4 Haaretz column. “This time it makes no difference what my wife says — I don’t care, she can say that I’m paranoid, that I’m hysterical, but I’m not letting my kids stay in Jerusalem. I will [go to] Tira with the kids for two or three days, maybe a week. Maybe I won’t come back at all.”

Noting that he is already spending next year teaching at a university in Illinois, he wrote that it might be a good opportunity to build a life in America. “My attempt at living together with others in this country was over. The lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.”

Tragically, he has decided to tell his daughter what his father told him on his first day of boarding school, words he’s spent his life refuting: “Remember that for them you will always, but always, be an Arab.”

Kashua wrote his column last week in the heat of anger and frustration — and fear for his children. The online comments now posted to the piece beg him to stay. Don’t leave us, they implore. Stay and fight for a better country, as you have always done. We need you.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].