Tongue-Tied About Israel

In spite of the The Israel Project’s new study that claims 94% of Americans agree with the statement that “Palestinian leaders must disarm the terrorists” and a large majority believe the U.S. should back Israel, I still managed to find somebody last weekend who opposes those notions. You’d think I’d have been able to keep my sh*t together considering the locale was 4 year-old’s birthday party, but I’m so embarrassed to admit I totally lost it.

While our children squealed with joy in the Hello Kitty! jumpy house, I attempted to remain civil while talking to a man who maintained that Israel “invaded” Palestine in 1948, kicked out the “Palestinians” and has engaged in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign ever since. He argued that suicide bombing is the “only option” for these oppressed refugees and since Israel was created illegally, it should be given back to its “rightful” inhabitants.

I know, I should have walked away and gotten a second piece of ice cream cake. But this is the kind of ignorance that exists � thrives � in a “liberal” place like Marin County, California and I’ve just flippin’ had it.

I tried to explain to him that in the recognized historical timeline of the world, the land that was to become Israel was handed over to the British Empire after the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire after WW1 and that thousands of parcels of land had been purchased by Jews over the decades� not stolen � from their Arab owners (with money � not guns.) I asked him if he’d ever heard of the League of Nations, or perhaps the U.N., who declared Israel the Jewish state quite legally, thank you very much. And whether he knew every surrounding Arabic country invaded the new state the minute it became autonomous, telling the Arabic people who lived there to leave for a bit, then come back as soon as all the Jews were dead. Unfortunately for them, the Jews kicked ass, and those people never got to come home.

I implored him to understand that I have great compassion for the Palestinian people who have suffered through generations in horrible conditions, the mothers who have watched their children die, the culture of absolute hatred borne out of economic desperation, but I lay the responsibility at the feet of their leaders, who have refused myriad peace agreements, the opportunity for a state and to acknowledge Israel at all.

He spat back about bulldozers and Rachel Corrie; I countered with two intifadas and countless civilian bombings. He said “wall,” I said “withdrawal.” Voices were raised and things got ugly, though far enough away from the children to be witnessed. I may have called him an “ignorant a-hole” before my husband dragged me over to the bubble machine to calm down. Suffice it the Yenta family will probably not be invited to Sadie’s 5th birthday.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I’m not a particularly political or religious Jew. When I’m hanging out with diehard Zionists, my views of Israel tend towards critical. But when someone starts comparing Israel � the only democracy in the Middle East � to the Third Reich and has apparently jumped on the cause of the Palestinians because he supports the “underdog” in any instance, I clearly lose all rational conversation skills.

I used to think anti-Semitism in this country was a vestigial paranoia of my grandparents’. But read the State Department’s report on world anti-Semitism; it’s chilling. (According to Rafael Medoff of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the report has a major anti-Semitic bent, even though it does make the link that anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. And while legislation passed requiring the State Department to create an office to monitor anti-Semitism a year and a half ago � its first envoy, Gregg Rickman, was appointed this month � department officials fought it all the way.)

In all honesty, I can’t stand talking about Israel; I don’t know enough, I don’t even know how I feel most of the time. But I couldn’t have sat there and said nothing while this guy ranted; it felt like an obligation to set him straight.

Of course, I did nothing of the kind � the only thing I accomplished was to make an enemy and enhance my reputation for bad behavior at parties.

I admit I need more education, in facts and logic about the Middle East as well as in non-confrontational discussion tactics. The fact is, I get very frightened when I encounter people like this man, who for the past five years has been a friendly face at the playground. I fear for my kids, who will surely have to confront anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Israel sentiments no matter where we live. I hope they’re better at talking about it than I am.

No doubt this post will get me into some kind of trouble with my readers. But let me tell you about a dream I had last night:

I was sitting in the street with a bunch of kids spinning a driedel. One of the kids was explaining to me the Christian origin of the driedel, how “nes, gadol, haya, shem” represented four facets of Jesus. I felt such a horror inside, and I was tempted to start yelling at them. But I didn’t. Instead, I began telling them the true story of the driedel, the story that came before the one they knew, about the Jews about how they used this top to educate themselves in secret when it was too dangerous to do it out in the open. And though I expected them to mock me, they sat and listened, and I could see them take in the information without it destroying what they already believed.

When I woke up, I thought about having a mind and heart so big that I could take in everything, even paradoxes and unpleasant and opposing views.

I know I did the right thing as a Jews by defending Israel in the face of lies, so why do I feel so badly?

9 thoughts on “Tongue-Tied About Israel

  1. Yenta,
    You feel badly simply because there exists the need to mount this type of defensive. Perfectly articulated responses to these critical/ignorant types may perhaps sway them slightly, but it does nothing for the zillions of others who can’t or won’t hear it. The Israel issue is deep in your heart, as it is mine, and when it is criticized, even wrongly (maybe especially then), it burns. That’s why your Jewish community is the trump card. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. And that’s what the anti folks don’t have. It ain’t easy being chosen, but I’d rather be so than not, even on the worst day. I think that’s what your dream alluded to.

    Keep up the good work.
    Josh Sadikman, Oakland.

  2. Dear Yenta,

    I suggest you read a new book about the history of Israel and Palestine called the Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan. Here’s a review written by Marcia Socci, the head of a Hadassa Book Club, which is posted at

    In my 56 years, I’ve read several books that have changed my life–brought me greater understandings, taught me things I didn’t know, mesmerized me so much that I took the books with me everywhere I went–even reading at stop lights! The Lemon Tree is right up there with The Haj, Hawaii, and Night. This history fills in all the gaps of my previous knowledge. So many people have questions about the Middle Eastern conflicts and all of those questions are answered in this book. My friends and I agree that we all SHOULD know more about the Middle East situation, but rarely do we want to sit down and study a history book. This book is full of facts, but it’s a page turner!I could hardly put it down. My life was on hold. One day I was reading The Lemon Tree and I actually started crying. There were heart-stopping moments, too. Very exciting! A thriller! I want to meet the real people in the book so much. They are so brave, both Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews. I love how Sandy Tolan showed Israel through different view points, e.g. al-Ramla through Arabic eyes and Ramla through Israeli eyes. It helped shift my thinking as I was reading. Everyone simply has to read this book, both sides, all sides!

    And here’s a brief summary of the story from another review


    It is the true story of a house in Ramle It was built in 1936 by the al-Khairi family on land which had been in their family since the sixteenth century. They were expelled in 1948 when Bashir al-Khairi was six years old. Soon after, the Eskenazi family – refugees, dispossessed — arrived on a ship from Bulgaria, and moved into the house — which, they were told, had been abandoned. Their daughter, Dalia was one year old.

    Dalia and Bashir meet nearly 20 years later and through the complex, deep, affectionate, and conflicted relationship they forge – the relationship of Bashir, Dalia, and the house with the lemon tree — Sandy tells the story of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

    It reads like a novel, and is accessible to a popular audience, but nothing is invented! — it is excruciatingly well documented journalism with every event verified from both Israeli and Arab sources. The footnotes take up 66 pages !!


    The book is getting praise from Jewish, Israeli, and Palestinian scholars, as well as from the mainstream press. How can that be? You are clearly a compassionate and reflective person. You want to learn more. So do I. I think we are the great majority and this book is an import resource for understanding the history, the proof of the history, and the meaning of the history for both Israelis and Palestinians.

    Some things in this book will be familiar and comfortable. Some of it is about a compassionate and reflective Israeli learning that not everything she was taught was true. Some of it is about a Palestinian point of view that this compassionate and reflective Israeli cannot understand, much less embrace. All of it is very carefully researched and documented with both Palestinian and Israeli sources(including declassified IDF documents). I promise that if you read it you will learn a lot. And, whatever your perspective when you’re finished, you won’t, at the next party, find yourself ‘toungue tied-over Israel’.


    p.s. here are some links relating to the book

    The first chapter is available at

    An interview with Terry Gross was aired on Fresh Air May 15.

    You can hear the 1998 radio documentary that was the inspiration for the book.

    The review quoted above is at
    Scroll down to the review titled M. Socci “Book Club Chair”. (You can skip the review by Mr. Franzman since he obviously didn’t read the book.)

    Christian Science Monitor

    Mother Jones

    Advance praise:

    This truly remarkable book presents a powerful account of Palestinians and Israelis who try to break the seemingly endless chains of hatred and violence. Capturing the human dimension of the conflict so vividly and admirably, Sandy Tolan offers something both Israelis and Palestinians all too often tend to ignore: a ray of hope.”
    —Tom Segev, author of One Palestine, Complete and 1949: The First Israelis

    This is a hard book to read with dry eyes and without a lump in one’s throat. And it is a hard book to read, also, without feeling – dare one even say the word in speaking about the Middle East? – something approaching hope. Sandy Tolan has found a remarkable story and has told it in all its beauty and sadness.
    —Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains and King Leopold’s Ghost

  3. That was a great post. I really know how you feel. Its horrible to confront the casual antisemitism that exists in our neighbors. I think its easier to deal with neo-nazis than it is to deal with guys like the one at the party bacause we EXPECT the nazis to be unreasonable and insane and truth twisters. It much harder when people who should know better believe all the jew hating rhetoric of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. I’m always stunned when I hear someone defending those who have rejected peace- real peace- for the last 40 years. And as gasoline prices get higher I’m afraid we’re going to hear a lot more Israel bashing- the “If we’d just do what was in our best interests and say to hell with Israel” crap. As you and I both know, Israel is in American interests, not just Jewish interests, but its hard to convice someone of that who thinks that poor sweet little Rachel Corrie was murdered by the zionist agressors. Anyway I’ve gone on too long. You’re a hell of a writer. I’m sorry I didn’t read this sooner.

  4. Maybe Yo Yenta should become more religious. It is a mitzvot to study Torah, but one must make every effort to live it as well. Mark Twain and Tolstoy both said about the Jews–that countries and people have come and gone, but the Jews timeline is endless. No other set of people(s) have endured and suffered as the Jews have, and the Jews are still here. I have come to believe through DNA that we are not only a religion, but actually a race of people. For those who maybe interested, plz go to, as she said so simply, “the only option left is to seek peace with our cousins.” My question still remains unanswered–When the Jews and Arabs have killed each other off, WHO GETS THE OIL???
    Michael A. Gold

  5. I think it’s important that your voice is heard. As American Jews, most of us are not Zionists, extremists, or particularly observant. What we all feel strongly about however, is unity in the face of those whose ignorance and hatred continues despite our own attempts to have common sense prevail.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. This was terrific! Very provacative!
    First of all, learn not to blow your cool and do your best to educate people. There are many ignoramas’ who need to be gently told there’s another side. Creating a dialogue at least let’s your side be heard although I understand your fristration and anger. Some people don’t want to learn the facts. The left has done more to harm Israel than the Christian right who support this beacon of democracy. They actually go and visit Israel and support their economy while many Jews are afraid to go there.
    Secondly, we have to pull together and support the only guaranteed place in the world that will take us when the rest of the world turns its back. And, if you think for a minute, it can’t happen again, wake up! It may not be organized Nazi killing machines but anti-Semitism is pervasive. The key to it all is the education of our children. We can’t lose 5000 yrs. of history (and the DNA proves we’re a race). I quote Yosef Abramowitz, Jews “still have the highest attrition rate of any religious group in the US.”

  7. This is a constant source of bickering and fighting between my (Israeli) boyfriend and I, where it seems impossible for the two camps to actually discuss an idea rationally.

    It seems impossible to agree that both sides might be right to a degree.

    But crying Anti-Semitism isn’t correct in this circumstance because the Arabs subject to debate are Semites too. =/

  8. Okay, Phia, you can play semantical. If you prefer the term “anti-Jewish” please feel free to use it, but the term “anti-Semitic” is an accepted synonym.

  9. Phia, most Arabs no longer considered themselves to be Semitic. I currently live in Baton Rouge, part of the bible belt. A few days ago a young friend of mine (19) was verbally attacked and insulted by a Christian woman about being Jewish. What is to be considered the correct term is irrevelant. The object here is that we (Jews) are constantly being attacked for our religious beliefs. My young friend handled it quite well, so much better than I would. I would have been even more insulting than this woman was. I do not put up with anyone insulting my religion nor my people.

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