Each Monday in March we're hearing from writers on the topic of 'risk'. Melbourne-based writer and editor Veronica Sullivan recently travelled to Israel, and has finally reached a place where she can write about that experience.
‘Of course it’s terrible that this is all happening,’ our guide said the first time airstrike sirens sounded and we huddled together in a bomb shelter, ‘but since you are here now anyway, you are so lucky to be getting the authentic Israel experience.’
Were we really lucky to be there? Or just lucky not to be sheltering from Israeli bombs on the other side of the West Bank?
In July 2014, I visited Israel on an organised tour for twentysomething Australian Jews. Two days after we arrived, the Israeli government declared war on Gaza.
My vague purpose in going to Israel was to educate myself on its past and present, to become informed about the region’s politics, people and culture. Whether I was talking politics with my Zionist great-uncle, or having a heated pub debate with my bleeding heart leftie mates, I wanted to be able to hold my own in conversations about a place that is both idealised and damned by opposing sides of Australian media and society.
I wanted to go to Israel, to reflect on the place and the people, to unpeel the country’s shell and write about it from the inside out. Instead I spent ten days feeling confused, dislocated, and alternating between fear and guilt.
Naively, I hoped that a trip sponsored by the Zionist Federation of Australia would provide space for nuanced and balanced information, and that the guide and the other travellers would be equally invested in a balanced cultural and political education.
I tried to relax into the trip. Bad Israeli folk music trailed out the bus windows as we wove across the country. At the Dead Sea, we floated in water so salty it itched our skin, then rubbed hot mud all over each other’s bodies like some primal bonding ritual. They felt good, these quick but true friendships. We laughed, a lot, and often at ourselves. No one tells offensive Jewish jokes quite like the Jews do (What happened to the Jew who walked into a wall with a boner? He broke his nose). Our bus was full of wit, charisma, and casual Zionism. Almost everyone was part of the self-described ‘J.C’ (Jew Crew), Melbourne and Sydney’s small and closely networked Jewish communities. I itched to be one of them, but when I raised doubts about Israeli politics, the others looked at me like I was on the wrong bus. Maybe I was. Every objection I made to the ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians was shot down with reminders that Israel was our biblical, God-given homeland.
I am not a quiet person, but soon I stopped asking difficult questions. When I spoke, I chose my words carefully, wary of saying something ill-informed, disrespectful, or just wrong. I began writing daily journal entries in painstakingly slow and out-of-practice shorthand, terrified that, if I recorded my thoughts legibly, they would be discovered and read aloud as a tool of denunciation a la Harriet the Spy. I felt like I was in a prolonged fever dream, a bad combination of school camp, a Contiki tour, and a religious convention.
Approaching Jerusalem for the first time, our tour guide quietened everyone as we drove through a tunnel.
‘Look to your left… wait for it… NOW! Welcome to Yerushalayim.’
We emerged from the tunnel and the flat, sun-baked houses and gold-roofed synagogues of Jerusalem appeared before us like a postcard. Matisyahu’s Jerusalem (Out Of Darkness Comes Light) played over the bus speakers.
Jerusalem, if I forget you / Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.
I stifled laughter while everyone else spontaneously applauded and cried with joy.
In Jerusalem, the few of us who had never been Bar or Bat Mitzvahed were offered the chance to do so. I was tempted to stand solemnly in the shadow of the Western Wall, on the ancient soil of the holy city, and allow the significance of the place to convince me I wanted to undergo this ceremony of womanhood. I would read a section of the Torah in English, our guide would say the magic words in Hebrew and wave his hands over my head and hey presto! I’d be a Jewish woman. Then I imagined what my own bemused response would have been back in Melbourne, and declined.
Half a dozen of us sat in a café eating shawarma.
‘So, are you gonna make aliyah?’ Josh asked casually. I looked down at my plate and concentrated on trying not to spill tahina on myself.
‘I’m thinkin’ about it,’ one girl answered coyly. ‘It feels like home here, you know?’
I did know, but rejected the feeling before it could take deep roots inside me.
All the qualities that had made me feel superior and purposeful before my departure – my quest for an objective truth; my lack of reliance on religious traditions and faith for meaning; my disillusionment and scepticism about the policies of the Israeli government – alienated me from the others on the tour. My responses to each carefully manipulated moment were inappropriate, were cynical, were self-isolating.
As the days wore on, the conflict between Israel and Gaza escalated. Each morning I obsessively checked news sites on my phone, cycling through Ynet, Haaretz, Al Jazeera and the New York Times for updates on the conflict, trying to combine their reports in my mind to form an aggregated version of the truth. As we boarded the bus each day our guide assured us, ‘Guys, guys – you are absolutely safe,’ as though that was the only information we cared or needed to know. ‘The Iron Dome will protect us.’
Gaza existed as an empty psychological space: To the west, vaguely present, but impossible – and yet, also, within a day’s drive of anywhere in Israel. In a group meeting, I mentioned a CNN report I’d seen that morning on the motel room TV, which said a hospital filled with wounded Palestinian citizens had been bombed by the Israeli army overnight. How could that possibly be justified, I asked?
‘Don’t believe everything you see on the news,’ our guide said darkly, and around the room heads nodded grimly.
One night towards the end of the trip, I sat on the side of the road in the small town of Arad with a South African-Australian girl named Sophie. We chain-smoked and half-watched a police checkpoint across the road as they searched every vehicle that entered the town. I asked her what she thought was going to happen next, whether the war would continue, and she waited a moment for a wave of fighter jets to pass before she responded.
‘I don’t know, but I hope Gaza is stupid enough to keep firing at Israel,’ Sophie said, her flat accent laced with venom. ‘Because we will fuck their shit up.’
I said nothing.
When I returned to Australia, suddenly everybody had an opinion about the war. I still felt ill-equipped to engage in those conversations. Family, friends, colleagues all asked how my trip was, and whether I was scared when the war kicked off. ‘I’m not really sure,’ I said vaguely. ‘It’s going to take me a while to process it.’ They looked at me as if to say, did you actually go there or not?
It was ashamed to admit that it had felt more risky to speak my mind openly, to declare I was appalled at the attacks on Palestinians and condemned every life that was taken, than it had to walk the streets of Israeli towns and cities and see smoke on the horizon and soldiers on the streets, while regular missile sirens directed us into the nearest bomb shelter to huddle together while the Iron Dome did its dirty work. In the far-removed safety of home, my feelings swung wildly back and forth.
Soon after I returned, a well-known left-wing journal commissioned me to write a personal essay on my trip. I tried desperately to impose some kind of sense and order on my experiences, but my first draft held almost everything back. I wrote about my trip as a time of spiritual and personal awakening, of bonding with My People and My Land. The guilt-ridden finished product focused on friendship bracelets and scaling mountains, and made only passing mention of the war. I tried to convince myself that Israel had been everything I had hoped, that I’d forged the spiritual and personal connections I’d been seeking. My words were weighted with fear that my fellow travellers would read the piece and out me as a Fake Jew (a fear that has shadowed me my whole life), and that my extended family would be disappointed.
I trashed that version and tried again. My second draft was highly critical – of Israel, its actions, but mostly on the other Australian Jews I travelled with. In my frustration, I painted them as bloodthirsty and callous. It was a petty depiction that said more about my own alienation from the group, than the suffering and violence in Gaza.
I started again. I tried to feel my way to the middle ground, the reality of the experience. I focused on nuance and grey areas, the crucial elements that seemed to me to be missing from either side of the public debate on Israel and the Middle East. I was proud of my restraint and my perspicacity.
The journal rejected my essay. ‘The ambiguity of the article makes it problematic,’ they tell me. ‘We're reluctant to run a piece that might be seen as agnostic about the conflict… because in the context of the ongoing deaths of so many children, a strong stance seems morally warranted.’ They wanted me to rewrite it to analyse the morality of the war, and I thought, What morality?
This piece you’ve just read has elements of all three of those versions. Over six months later, I can finally write about my time in Israel honestly. I still can’t talk about it, though, nor do I pretend to comprehend the minutiae or even the big picture of the political situation. So much for being able to hold my own in discussions about the Middle East. My Jewish relatives have given up asking hopefully whether I developed a connection to the country and its people, and felt the pull of the homeland.
Truthfully, it was hard not to feel it, even if you didn’t necessarily ask to. We were often reminded that Israel was our spiritual home, and our literal one too if we wanted it to be. Thanks to a quirk of my matrilineal heritage, the Israeli government would readily sponsor me to move there, as it would any Jew anywhere in the world, while a few dozen kilometres away Palestinians are still dying and killing and dying for the same opportunity.
Does that make me lucky?
Veronica Sullivan is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings and Assistant Manager of the Stella Prize. She tweets @veronicaahhh.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.