The Jewish diaspora didn’t always march lockstep behind Israel. My great-grandmother–who escaped pogroms and lost family in the Holocaust–was an anti-Zionist.
Rampant anti-Semitism drove my great-grandmother from Eastern Europe. There’d been pogroms; there were restrictions on the type of work Jews could do. My family made their way to New York City with little more than the clothes on their backs; the relatives they’d left behind disappeared during the Holocaust, never to be heard from again.
So when the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of Palestine in 1947, my great-grandmother’s son, my grandfather, rejoiced. He ran into the street and danced. He sang HaTikva. And when fighting broke out in Palestine, he decided that he would make the trip east and join the Haganah, which later became the Israeli army. Sure, he was only 16, but he would lie about his age and enlist.
It was my great-grandmother—an Orthodox Jew who’d fled anti-Semitism, who’d lost family and friends in the Holocaust—who stopped him.
“No way are you going to fight the Arabs,” she said. She was an anti-Zionist and, as such, there was a lot packed into those words.
Even though I never met her, I always find myself thinking about my great-grandmother a lot this time of year. This is the period in Israel when we enter the cycle of nationalist holidays that starts with Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). Never mind that Israel treats Holocaust survivors so poorly that they have protested the issue. Never mind that many Holocaust survivors are still struggling to survive in Israel and that, according to Ynet, that state is cutting their benefits by twenty percent. Never mind that Israel cynically uses the Holocaust as a political tool to defend indefensible policies of occupation and expansion and to beat the war drums against Iran.
After Yom HaShoah, the flag-waving continues with Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day) and culminates with Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). Stacked one on top of the other, the three holidays maximize feelings of victimhood, self-righteousness, and unity. For many Israelis, that the sad Yom HaZikaron rolls straight into the joyful Yom HaAtzmaut gives a feeling of triumph, of exhilaration. It’s intoxicating. And it’s dangerous.
Maybe that’s why my great-grandmother didn’t want her son to fight in a war that wasn’t her own. I think she understood that Israel wasn’t the solution to the Jewish people’s problems. Today, I’m watching the bits of democracy that exist here tremble under the weight of the occupation. I watch the conversation about Israel grow increasingly divisive in the Diaspora. I consider the vibrant Jewish cultures and languages that were virtually wiped out for the sake of forging an Israeli identity. I see Jews turn away from Judaism because of Israel’s ill-doings. I wonder if my great-grandmother saw all this coming, if she knew the trouble that lay ahead.