Laura Ishai with Natan Sharansky at a program for Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel
Laura Ishai with Natan Sharansky at a program for Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel

I’m a longtime progressive and (still) a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist

As I watch anti-Israel propaganda spread and be embraced by progressives in this country — good-hearted, well-meaning people — my heart sinks. As a Jew and an Israeli, I am afraid. The concurrent rise in anti-Semitism worldwide only multiplies my trepidation exponentially. There appears to be an escalating belief on the left that to be a progressive, one must be anti-Israel. The delegitimization, demonization and the double standard to which Israel is being held convince me that I’m watching the rebranding of anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, and I am concerned.

For me, it started with the anti-Israel messages that accompanied the Women’s March in 2017. More recently,, of which I have been a member these last 10 years, began to echo the same sentiments. When the organization called on presidential candidates to boycott this year’s AIPAC conference, its literature stated that “You can’t be a Progressive and support AIPAC.”

I happen to also be a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and while I may not agree with all its policies, I do believe it is the most viable lobby for the only Jewish country in the world.

I’m not alone in feeling betrayed and invalidated by the position of the left on Israel. By portraying the Israel-Palestinian conflict as black and white, the left is ignoring how complicated and nuanced the situation is. This alienates progressives like me who believe that while Palestinians are indeed victims, they are not only victims of Israel.

Born in the U.S. nine months after my father returned from World War II, I was raised with a commitment to ensure that the horrors of Nazi Germany never again occur. I have been intimately involved with the State of Israel since 1966, splitting the last 50-plus years between living in the Bay Area and in Jerusalem. Privileged with dual citizenship, I am deeply integrated into both cultures. This makes me feel I know a thing or two about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, since returning to live in the Bay Area in 2003, I have stopped talking about the conflict. It is a complicated subject, one that can quickly devolve into sound bites and confrontation, and I’m not comfortable with that.

I have long been devoted to tikkun olam, repairing the world. In high school, I marched with CORE, the Council on Racial Equality, and ran a food drive. I later marched against the war in Vietnam and became a social worker at UC Berkeley, advocating for social justice. Living in Jerusalem, I was a member of Peace Now, stood with Women in Black to protest the occupation and consulted with the U.S. Consulate to enable its staff of Jews, Palestinians and Americans to work better as a team. I took part in a joint Arab and Jewish group of social workers through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to develop programs to ensure the fair distribution of services.

My work for peace continued until the year 2000 when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down a very real offer of peace brokered by President Bill Clinton, and the second intifada erupted. Once the intifada began, we at the JDC never again heard from our Arab social work partners. We figured they were afraid of being labeled “collaborators,” who are routinely tortured or killed by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. During the terror of the second intifada, the No. 18 bus that my children rode to school in Jerusalem blew up three times, killing eight of my son’s classmates.

Still, I cheered when Ariel Sharon announced the pending withdrawal of all Israelis, troops and settlers, from Gaza. Friends and I toasted the withdrawal at a picnic. A conservative friend told me not to celebrate just yet, saying, “I promise you, the minute we are out of Gaza, rockets will fall on Israel.” I disagreed, thinking the government was forcibly removing every single settler and now the Palestinians would have their own land. They could use the greenhouses and the fertile soil to start building their own state. There would be peace.

I was wrong. The greenhouses stayed empty and were eventually destroyed.

My belief that the Palestinian leadership is a partner for peace was eroded after the Palestinians turned down offers of peace from Clinton (and others), after the terror brought on by the second intifada and after Israel’s total withdrawal from Gaza resulted only in more war. I also came to the realization that there are virtually no Jews living in any Arab country.

The Palestinian leadership doesn’t support normalization: “We fight to regain the territory we lost in 1948 and to get the Jews out of the Middle East” seems to be the goal. That is what I heard being chanted at the Women’s March, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

While I am still in favor of a decent solution that will give the Palestinians welfare, prosperity, sovereignty and independence, I’ve reluctantly concluded that the authoritarian Palestinian leadership does not want the well-being of their people or a state alongside Israel, but rather instead of Israel.

I still oppose the settlement enterprise. I still oppose Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. I am still a progressive. And I will continue to support Israel.

Laura Ishai

Laura Ishai is retired and lives in Oakland with her husband. She continues to be involved in both progressive and Zionist activities. She is using a pseudonym because in the past she has been personally confronted over the anti-Zionism-anti-Semitism she writes about and doesn’t want to repeat that experience.