By Keren Tova Rubinstein
Last month I travelled to Israel after my longest absence from it since I emigrated 23 years ago. It had been five years since I was there last. This didn’t mean that it changed hugely from what I’d remembered – as Israelis kept expecting – but rather, that I had undergone significant change that altered how I felt as a returning Israeli visitor. Now, back in the quiet of Australian suburbia, I want to unpack my changing relationship with Israel.
The biggest change that had occurred in my life was that I’d become a mother and left my love/hate relationship with tertiary Jewish Studies. My children and I were to stay with my sister and nephew in their rented home. My husband was making his way separately, to join us a week later. He had never been to Israel, failed to pick up Hebrew over our 12-year relationship, and shared my strong reservations about the country, though was keen to finally see it with his own eyes. Politics aside, I truly hoped he’d see something good in it and love it through the murky pollution, somehow, as I do.
My sister, who is older than me, and unlike me has spent most of her adult life in Israel (including completion of military service), was living in Holon. Not her ideal location. Tel Aviv, or perhaps Jaffa, would have been her first choices. Being centrally located has always been key to her occupation as an artist. Holon is only a twenty minute drive from Tel Aviv, and that’s only because of the dense traffic on the trans-urban highway, but it embodies a working-class, family-oriented culture, increasingly religious population, and it is seemingly inhabited by young families and lonesome elderly people. Where are all the artsy thirty-somethings? The hipsters with cosmopolitan sensibilities and fit bodies? Not in Holon. Fatigued from early motherhood, I welcomed this subdued landscape, and, against my expectations, it seemed to welcome me too.
My expectations of this trip were indeed fairly negative. I was unsure how I’d handle being with my two children for a month (no daddy for the first week & no day-care for the duration), how I would fare navigating and mediating between language worlds, ideological worlds and the tension and mania of life in Israel pitted against my family’s needs. I imagined myself frantically trying to appease everyone, failing to be diplomatic about the creeping fascism and racism, failing to keep my bad temper in check, worried that I wasn’t translating enough or perhaps translating too much. Worried that we weren’t getting to see beautiful things, and that I dragged my husband to this sick place for nothing.
My worries were exaggerated. But of course I did encounter all the usual expressions of civilian aggression that I know so well and come to expect on my visits to my birth place, where I grew up, and to which I returned periodically after being whisked away as a teenager. Across from my sister’s balcony was a house being renovated; the Arab construction workers were there at dawn as I returned from another walk with my jetlagged baby. They were there all day, every day. We would often make eye contact. I wished I could talk to them. But we were as separate as can be. Those middle of the night walks with my baby around the quiet streets of Holon were oddly calming. I felt so safe, so indulgent. In Melbourne such outings in the dark are always accompanied by fear, the deadly quiet and emptiness possible hosts for violent attacks. Not so for me in Holon.
Holon had become a much more religious city than I remembered, I thought, as I walked to the supermarket with my children. “She’s too hot!” one woman shouted at me, pointing into the stroller and grimacing. The woman looked fatigued, creased with worry, dulled by hard work and, I imagined, poverty. A lot more women seemed religious (the markings of creeping conservatism are clearer on women’s bodies), donning elaborate head scarves that reminded me of Rastafarian or tribal gear, but here bore none of that ‘coolness’. At the paved city square, under the shade of the sycamores, half a dozen elderly people in wheelchairs sat idly, unresponsive, as their carers from the Philippines were having a lively conversation (I wonder if they care about the Occupation, I mused and chuckled to myself; surely they are pro-Palestinian, I mocked myself, knowing I’m probably deluded). Not far from there was a complex of high-rises that formed part of a national franchise of retirement villages. And suddenly I was surrounded by Russians, shop signs in Russian, fashion trends markedly different. I entered the air-conditioned supermarket, saying a lovely Aussie-style ‘Hello’ to the security guard who didn’t bother scanning me with his hand-held metal detector, and also didn’t bother replying to my genteel greeting. Too hot. Too pointless.
Quarrels at the supermarket. Strangers telling me I should shave my armpits. Back on the street, guns and rifles rubbing up against me in the fast food checkout line. Traffic savagery (thank goodness I don’t have to drive). Rude pushiness in queues and clerical disdain for customer service, even and maybe more so in government offices (this kind of rude behaviour would cause a riot in Australia). Ah Israel, she never fails to deliver on the little things. Including the fatal stabbing of an IDF soldier by a Palestinian civilian a few metres away from where we’d eaten a falafel in Tel Aviv.
At night I kept thinking someone was shouting my name from a few blocks away. It was a muted wail, a man’s voice. For hours, shouting, over and over. Must have been one of the elderly people in the retirement building. Perhaps reliving Auschwitz, I thought. Every night, the same constant wail.
I decided I will not try to take my husband to Jerusalem, the Separation Wall, and countless other things – mostly avoided due to travel with children, but also because it seemed unnecessarily risky. Once, when I was visiting alone years earlier, I wanted to finally see the West Bank, but my angst-ridden, politically conservative father was so appalled by the idea, I decided to forego this plan, fearing that it may give him a heart attack; such was the hysteria in his home surrounding anything Arab (except for food), including the keffiyeh I’d bought at the flea market. So this time we avoided anything remotely risky or contentious. But that was challenging, it turned out.
Holon is a good city for children. At one playground with gorgeous giant monsters that you can climb into and slide down, an Orthodox boy followed me around, saying, “I saw your bottom!” His mother quickly called him back, adding, “don’t talk to anyone! There are dangerous people on the streets now!” Did she say this because of the wave of stabbings, or was that how she always felt?
Although I encountered all these saddening and aggressive things and more (the complete absence of any Arab markings in Jaffa, which had been severely gentrified and Judaized), I felt freer than in my suburban home in Melbourne. Was it because I didn’t know anyone? No, I didn’t feel like this in Toronto or Cleveland. As my body relaxed with the hard hitting heat and humidity, and my head resettled back into Hebrew, I felt happy. Now, more than ever, I felt free to glean the good and to reject all that I knew to be corrupt in that place. Was this a privilege? Most definitely.
There is also a much talked-about instant warmth doled out by strangers in Israel. I receive it in small doses whenever I go back there. Is it because I’m a woman? Because of my face/colour/smile/money? Because I was with young children? Or just because? In regular, every-day transactions, I always glimpse this camaraderie and it tugs at my heartstrings. The deep connection that can be formed instantly between strangers, because there is an openness and a trust that I still cannot find in Australia. Needless to say, if I was wearing a hijab, or if I were Ethiopian, my experience would be extremely different.
At my sister’s home there is no television and nobody reads the news; just as well. We couldn’t talk about it anyway. I already knew very well that as an ex-pat, my right to talk about Israel was gone, unless I was to lavish praise. Even when talking with moderate self-confessed Lefties. But all the while, as I hesitantly posted photos of my trip on Facebook, I felt that this visit was somewhat repugnant, certainly for my Palestinian friends. This was what they call “48”. Somewhere they couldn’t go. Maybe in the backdrop of the photograph of my son was a building that was once my friend’s ancestral home? Fields that to me look cute at dusk, to someone else could reek of ongoing savagery; a colonised landscape. And the fact that I wasn’t watching the news did nothing to distract me from the ongoing brutality of soldiers in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem, from growing illegal Settlements, from abuse of children, imprisonment without trial of countless men and women, erasure and dispossession that made it possible for me to walk around. And the stabbings continued; at my father’s house – where the TV is always on – we saw a Palestinian woman shot dead by several men. Sickening. I shut my mouth as my father justified the killing. He is so frail, utterly unable to hear a different story.
But I did confront a few others; the racist taxi driver who insisted “Lebbos” in Australia had started a civil war once and that Muslims were taking over the world. I confessed to my sister, who continually finds herself repulsed by Israel yet also, at times, misguided by its propaganda. Would I be the same if I were living there? In my candid conversations with her I realised: I am not responsible for what happens in Israel. I am not its ambassador, as I once felt myself to be, all those years ago when I first arrived in Australia as a teenager. I’m not its tool or its soldier. I left Israel, many times, and have done my best ever since, with growing confidence, to see it for what it really is, without erasing its crimes, without overlooking Israeli history as told from the margins. I’ve long believed that things are clearer from the margins. I recognise my privilege and relative safety as a Jewish Israeli who can travel here and there, come and go as I please. Swan about without fearing for my life (I’m lucky that I’m white). I do my best to own this privilege. And mostly, I strive for the truth, savage as it may be.
By Keren Tova Rubinstein