A Jewish American Amid Israel’s Blue and White

Nearly everyone was festively waving large, Israeli flags. The marchers were obscured by the sea of blue and white. It was a peaceful scene.
March 15, 2023
Tens of thousands of Israelis attend a massive protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plan on March 11, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Arriving from JFK airport, I was unsure how I would feel visiting my wife’s family in Israel. I had always experienced a sense of belonging in the Jewish State. But with an ultra-nationalist government in power, I wondered whether the country still represented or welcomed liberal Zionists like me who prayed in egalitarian synagogues.

I settled in with my wife and daughter in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. I felt at home amid its upscale boutiques, cafes, and old Arab stone houses.

Yet Baka also crystalized the liberal Zionist dilemma. The area’s old stone houses once belonged to Palestinians who had abandoned their homes; a tangible reminder that the Israel I identified with came at a high moral cost.

I had believed that Israel was at heart a pluralistic nation, which would eventually reject the occupation’s cruelty. But when the ultra-nationalists came to power last December, the Israel I’d known was reduced to a nation of my imagination.

This realization was especially painful because I adored my wife’s family, regarding their country as a bond between us. Many of my relatives had participated in the protests opposing the government’s proposal to neuter the Supreme Court, which would enable the governing coalition to enact their far-right agenda, without judicial interference.

The protests gave me hope that Israelis would resurrect the liberal Zionist dream. Yet the rallies were squarely focused on the courts. There was no call to confront the West Bank settler movement; the moral cancer that metastasizes with every checkpoint search, every eviction in East Jerusalem, every new settlement outpost.

Our first night in Jerusalem, my wife, daughter and I met my sister-in-law Abby and brother-in-law Simon, at a cafe. They told me that a rally was scheduled for the next day at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. I said I wanted to go.

 “There are concerns the right will send thugs into the crowd to stir up violence,” Simon said. “Nobody will think less of you if you decide not to go.”

How could I not? The protestors were fighting to keep Israel a true democracy; to preserve the core of the nation which was essential to my Jewishness.

Besides, what happens in Israel does not stay there. Because Israel has such a large impact on Jewish identity, the Jewish State’s rightward turn has emboldened the religious and political right within America’s Jewish community, turning many Jews off to both Israel and Judaism. In joining the protest I would be adding my voice to the struggle against Israel’s ultra-nationalist agenda, while standing up for America’s Jewish left.

I walked the three miles between Baka and the Knesset. Before I could see the rally I heard it. There were speeches in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand. Then I heard a chant that needed no translation. Democrat Ya! Democratic Ya!

As I approached the Knesset building an immense throng marched in an unwieldy circle that at points became a scrum. The speeches had ended and I watched from the perimeter.

Nearly everyone was festively waving large, Israeli flags. The marchers were obscured by the sea of blue and white. It was a peaceful scene.

I was lifted by a feeling of camaraderie, similar to what I experienced when seeing American flags displayed in the aftermath of 9/11.

The protestors broke into song. I recognized Banu Choshech Legaresh, which is about light banishing darkness. It was sunny and warm, and the night seemed far off.

Later, a relative explained that in past political clashes the flag had been monopolized by Israel’s right. But during the democracy movement the left had reclaimed the blue and white as their symbol. The flag waving protestors seemed to convey the message that while the ultra-nationalists had their sphere of influence in the West Bank, they would not get their wish to impose their fanaticism on everyday Israelis.

On Shabbat my wife, daughter and I gathered with 50 of our relatives, at a kibbutz in the desert. This was my Israel.

By the end of the trip the protest and embrace of family had exorcised the feeling of estrangement that I had arrived with. At the airport I looked at a news site. The headline on my phone jolted me back to the reality of Netanyahu’s unholy resurrection: “ELEVEN PALESTINIANS KILLED DURING ISRAELI RAID IN NABLUS.” That is also Israel.

One day I hope to see mass protests with Israelis waving Palestinian flags alongside the blue and white. That may be far off, but perhaps the democracy movement will spur a comprehensive rethinking of where Israel needs to be.

It is unclear whether the protests will scuttle the designs of the Israeli right. Still, the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets makes it clear that the Jewish State’s center is insistent on living in a pluralistic, democratic nation.

Israel is not the nation I want it to be. But the pride I felt amid the waving blue and white flags was enough. For now.

Ben Krull is an attorney and free-lance writer, living in Brooklyn New York.

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