Israel and I: A Love/Hate Relationship
By Annette Libeskind Berkovits
I won’t beat around the bush. The Donald Trump victory is not only highly distressing to me as an American; it is troublesome because it portends to render peace in my beloved Israel more distant than ever. The reason is clear to see by anyone who followed the pre-election rhetoric.
Trump is a builder. Israel, too, is a nation of builders. It has built a highly successful nation from scratch in less than seven decades. For Israeli nationalists, spiritual brethren to the Donald, this could be a shidduch made in heaven. Already there are loud voices in Israel proclaiming that in the age of Trump settlements on the West Bank will grow like mushrooms after the rain (which, incidentally, is in very short supply now.) More settlements will lead to more killings on both sides. Hopes for peaceful coexistence will be fully extinguished, as Israelis and Palestinians remain entwined in a death spiral.
I often wonder if my feelings for Israel resemble feelings for one’s lover who betrayed her, but I wouldn’t know since no such trauma ever happened to me. To be sure, there have been traumas in my life, but not in the love department. For you to understand the trajectory of my emotions vis-a-vis Israel, you need to know some of my personal history.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors who managed to evade slaughter only because they were interred in Soviet gulags, I was born in the former Soviet Republic (now an independent Muslim country) of Kyrgyzstan. My parents, Nachman and Dora Libeskind, returned to their native Poland in the spring of 1946 to embark on a search for surviving members of their family. It didn’t take long for them to discover that nearly everyone they had known had been murdered. But they couldn’t leave because my brother Daniel had been born on our arrival in Poland, a sickly baby, and my mother was too devastated and too physically weak to travel out of Poland. Very soon the gates slammed shut and exit was no longer possible.
My brother and I grew up in the grim, anti-Semitic post-World War II city of Lodz. We attended Polish schools where we were among a tiny handful of Jews. In our apartment complex we were the only Jews, as best as we knew. Many kept their Jewishness secret, fearful of their neighbors. Our lives were very circumscribed and lonely. There was no close family, no grandparents, no cousins and only a handful of Polish acquaintances.
When the opportunity arose to emigrate from Poland, my parents hustled to accomplish the move quickly to avoid a revocation of our exit visas, something that had happened on several occasions before. I was less than thrilled because I’d have to learn a new language and new customs, but most of all because I’d be leaving my school friends. My mother had several relatives in Israel who emigrated from Poland long before World War II to reclaim the Jewish land and their ancient roots. She was most anxious to reunite with them, while my father looked forward to speaking Yiddish freely, something he could not do in Poland. He also looked forward to building the young country.
When we arrived in Israel, it felt like we had landed on a distant planet. I was completely overwhelmed; everything was so different: the language, the weather, the landscape—and, most of all, the people. I had never seen such an array of skin and hair colors, women with rifles slung over their shoulders and, most importantly, it seemed everyone around me was Jewish! I was no longer in the minority, having to tip toe around my identity for fear I’d be ostracized, or worse.
In very short order I learned Hebrew, befriended my many cousins, danced all night in the streets of Tel Aviv at Israel’s 10th birthday and fell madly in love with the country. It was mine, it was glorious and I belonged. My mother, too, was happy. She opened a modest corset-making business and reveled in the company of her siblings and many cousins. Now she was finally able to show us how to celebrate Jewish holidays, something we could not do in Poland.
My father, though, suffered a very bad disappointment. There was enormous disdain for Yiddish, his beloved mother tongue, in Israel at that time. He was told in no uncertain terms not to speak it. “The sooner you speak Hebrew, the faster you’ll be accepted here,” was a perennial chorus from everyone, including family members. Perhaps even worse was the fact that he could not find work. At age 48 he was considered over the hill. Israel hadn’t yet reached its 10th birthday when we arrived. It needed young people to build the country. At his age, and with zero knowledge of Hebrew, my father was useless. These were the reasons he decided to emigrate from the promised land.
Here, once again, I was heartbroken. If he could obtain entry visas for me, my brother and my mother, I’d have to leave the place where I was most myself, the land I loved with every fiber of my being. The traumatic experience took place when I was 16. I arrived in New York as if, again, on a new planet. I knew no English and nothing about America and its culture. In Communist Poland, where I grew up, one could not risk reading (or even thinking) about America, the great Satan. I mourned for Israel and moped, even secretly plotting how to stow away on a ship going back.
But life has a way of insinuating itself. I attended an elite high school, learned English, went to college, married and had children. America became my home, yet for a long time Israel loomed in my mind like a mirage. I followed its events in the press, I wrote to and spoke with my kibbutz cousins. It was the place to which my brain turned for nourishment. Then things began to change.
My feelings began to sour when I read about ever-expanding settlements, the disregard for the rights of Israeli Arabs and, even more so, for the Palestinians and about the pig-headed intransigence of Israeli leaders. Now I was interpreting the unfolding events with the mind of an adult, not a teenage girl in love. Then an Israeli radical murdered Yitzhak Rabin and ended the prospect of peace ever descending on my beleaguered, beloved land. I felt the rage far more keenly than if the evil deed had been perpetrated by an angry Arab. My belief in the decency of the Jewish people had been violated.
The final nail in coffin of my love for Israel was an event rarely noted in the press. The kibbutz movement I had come to appreciate for its fairness and idealism began dying. The place that had shown me how people could live harmonious lives while avoiding the rat race, sold out. A giant American corporation bought out the kibbutz of my youth, lock, stock and barrel, completing my process of falling out of love with a stab at the heart. Though my lips speak of love lost, every now and then I can feel Israel’s tug at my heart.
I feel like a wounded person who knows one can never go back. I do care deeply about what happens to Israel, though I have no hope good things will happen in my lifetime. Over the years, I did encourage my son, daughter and grandson to spend time in Israel. I sent them when they were still young. Most recently, a trip to Israel was my grandson’s Bar Mitzvah gift. I was hoping my descendants would fall in love as I had, and maybe, as members of new generations, would not look at solutions with my jaded eye. I pray they succeed.
Annette Libeskind Berkovits is author of the recently published memoir, In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags and Soviet Communism. Her essays and poetry have appeared in several publications. You can visit her website at www.annetteberkovits.com.