Writer Katherine Ellison
Writer Katherine Ellison

My sons’ military service in Israel has changed my perspective

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I grew up with Paul Newman’s Israel, the heroic nation that inspired the 1960 epic “Exodus” and made the desert bloom. At 18, I summered on a kibbutz, and in 1976 was on my way back, planning to spend my sophomore year at the Hebrew University.

By then, however, Israel’s Technicolor sheen had faded in the wake of two wars and the capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was already starting to second-guess my plan when I met an Israeli conscientious objector staying at the home of some friends in London. Well into the night, he harangued me for casting my lot with the “oppressors.”

Global sympathy was rising for the Palestinians, even as Palestinian terrorists stepped up attacks, bombing and shooting Israeli civilians. I was young and easily intimidated. Two days later, I flew home.

For the next three decades, I mostly put Israel out of my mind. My Jewish friends, like me, were political liberals. We cared about poverty, women’s rights and the environment — the easy stuff. We avoided arguments about occupied lands or Palestinian rights. We didn’t want to risk being politically incorrect.

Until this year.

This year found me standing at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, watching my 20-year-old son holding a Torah and gun while being sworn in to the infantry of the Israel Defense Forces. At my side was my other son, who at 23 was nearing the end of his service in Israel’s border police. Midway through college, at roughly the same age as I was when I bolted from Israel’s complexity and heartbreak, my two children ran in the other direction. This has forced me to look more closely at Israel, just when polls show record numbers of American liberals like me have been turning away.

A large survey last year of Jews in the Bay Area found only 21 percent described themselves as “very attached” to the Jewish homeland. And while 43 percent said they sympathized more with Israelis than with Palestinians, about half sympathized with both sides, or with neither, or weren’t sure.

Liberal Jews, in particular, are retreating from an Israel whose policies and image are in unprecedented global disrepute — no thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose latest cringe-worthy move has been to align with racist, far-right politicians to bolster his re-election prospects.

My otherwise liberal sons are obvious exceptions. Along with more than 6,300 other “lone soldier” foreign volunteers — one third of them American —they share none of my ambivalence. And I’ve spent the last year trying to understand why. They didn’t get this from their father and me: We’re not only not active Zionists, we’re both knee-jerk pacifists and gun-control zealots distrustful of patriotic displays.

When I ask my boys why they’re serving, they act like it’s a no-brainer. They believe in a Jewish homeland, and a nation under constant threat must be protected. Unlike the U.S. military, Israel’s soldiers’ main mission is defense, as they point out. They guard checkpoints, destroy “attack tunnels” dug under their borders and train to prepare for war from all sides.

This still begs the question of why they’ve gone so far as to put their own lives on the line, enduring boot camp, canned corn, and rocks and Molotov cocktails hurled in their direction. Because I love and want to understand them, I’ve tried to look deeper into what led to their choice, retracing their steps as best I can.

Before blazing the trail to Tel Aviv, my older son attended Columbia University, with its famously active boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. A lifelong defender of underdogs, he soon joined a chapter of Students Supporting Israel, which runs counter-programming during Israel Apartheid Week, an annual event orchestrated by pro-Palestine groups. SSI says BDS “demonizes” Israel, raising the reasonable question of why students aren’t out protesting Russia, which has hijacked our democracy, or Saudi Arabia, which killed a U.S.-based Saudi journalist last year, tortures political activists and bombs children in Yemen.

The AMCHA Initiative, a Santa Cruz-based group that tracks anti-Semitism on campuses, says attacks on Jews have increased in step with the anti-Zionist activities. In 2017, when both of my sons were still in college, the Anti-Defamation League reported 204 incidents of anti-Jewish harassment, vandalism and assault on U.S. campuses, an 89 percent increase over 2016.

Reflecting on what it must have felt like for my children to study in this environment has given me a better sense of the appeal for them in wearing uniforms and learning how to shoot. A common stereotype of Jews is that we’re wimpy and frail: easy targets for those who hate us. Israel is proof we can protect ourselves.

Watching my kids’ determination has reminded me why I grew up believing in Israel. My grandfather fled to New York from Odessa as a teenager after two of his brothers were slaughtered in pogroms. As a child, I had constant nightmares about Nazis. These days, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and last year’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue make me grateful there’s one place in the world where we would never be turned away.

Still, my attachment to Israel goes beyond fear. I deeply admire its open society, full of debate and dissent, where, as Nicholas Kristof once noted, “the most cogent critiques of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians invariably come from Israel’s own human rights organizations.” Israel is more than Netanyahu, just as the United States is more than Donald Trump.

None of this means I’ll be moving to Israel anytime soon, or that I’m not relieved that both my sons plan to come home after their service. Nor does it mean I’m not deeply troubled by reports of violations of Palestinian human rights and by the government’s support of West Bank settlements, which makes lasting peace through a two-state solution ever more elusive.

Still, I worry now that if political liberals like me keep fleeing to the sidelines, Israel will be left with only the extremists, who’ll likely encourage its government’s most self-destructive policies.

The late writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. My brave sons have made me understand that I can love Israel, just like I love America, even as I hate some of its government’s behavior. But I’m no longer free to look away.

A version of this essay was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Katherine Ellison
Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who lives in Marin County. Her website is katherineellison.com.