My uncle turned 60 last year, and his wife threw him a surprise party in a gawdy and raucous Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. We engorged ourselves with enough food to feed an entire Cossack battalion and waited for the festivities -- Las Vegas-style dancers straight from the Caucus -- to begin. So my younger cousin Jenna turned to me and asked, "why do you hate Israel?"
I should have been surprised, maybe even shocked, at the question, but instead I sighed, told myself not to give in and just to be quiet... and launched into argument mode. To me, these conversations always take a supremely grey issue and make it as black and white as possible, with me inevitably on the defense.
Substitute the streets of Jerusalem for the Russian nightclub, and a collection of conservative journalists for my cousin, and you get almost the same situation (without the dancers, alas).
I'm home after a week-long journalist junket funded by AEIF, a project of AIPAC, the main Israeli-American lobbyist pro-Israel lobby in Washington. I was taken on a seven-day whirlwind tour of Israel in which I gazed on the Gaza Strip from the distance that a Qassam rocket flies; rode through the Golan Heights and spied on Lebanon and Syria; mourned the Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem; traced Jesus' steps in the Galilee; partied in Tel Aviv; prayed in Jerusalem; ate salmon kebobs in Tiberias; stopped by a Jewish settlement in the West Bank; viewed an immigrant absorption center full of newly-arrived Ethiopian Jews; and met with a parade of current and retired officials, generals, ministers, writers, and social workers, most of whom represented the center-right of Israeli politics (a couple of exceptions were Mahmoud Abbas' chief of staff Rafiq Husseini and a wonderful woman named Chen in Sderot, the southern Israeli town getting shelled by Hamas on a daily basis).
I came into this trip knowing that my progressive ideas would most likely rub up against AIPAC's pro-Israel lobbyist spin, but I was excited to see the country -- which I'd never visited before -- and decided to do my best to hold on to independent thought as I entered a week-long spin zone.
I never thought my fellow travelers would be the real problem.
My companions were mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings from the Weekly Standard, Slate, the Politico, Townhall, and the National Review. I represented techPresident, a blog few in my group had heard of, but which is, in my humble opinion, just as influential as their inside-the-Beltway publications. At techPresident we are decidedly nonpartisan, and while I enjoy my role as an arbiter of tech cool in politics, I’m not up for haranguing the right about the virtues of the left, and I don't think it's fun when the reverse happens either.
Yet by the second day of the trip, as we cruised along the open Israeli roads -- and inched through the West Bank checkpoints -- I'd found that I'd attained the nickname, "The Left." As in, "The Left doesn't think Israel has a right to exist," or "Why does The Left support Hamas?” In fact I've always been uncomfortable identifying with any ideology or party, a notion lost on my nuance-deprived companions. That said, if you insist on placing me on a spectrum I'd land far to the left of the center -- whatever that means.
On Israel I long ago decided to forgo any strong opinions of my own. I was simply in possession of too little information, time, and patience to come up with a coherent attitude. Thus the impetus for this trip. And as I struggled absorb the myriad details and opinions among the Israelis we met, which reflected the changing landscape outside by bus window, I was more taken than ever with the complexity of it all. Hamas is sending rockets into Israel and says it wants to completely erase Israel; some Israelis don't want to talk to them at all and others think we should do anything for peace. The Israeli right thinks the Palestinian Authority and Fatah are completely incompetent at keeping the peace and working toward a settlement, yet have no other partner with whom to work; some Israelis want to forge ahead and others have no faith. Then on to Hezbollah, Syria and the Golan Heights, terrorists from East Jerusalem, and an Israeli need to justify its actions in the face of Western criticism. I tried to take all of these issues into account without coming to an easy judgment about the Israeli/Palestinian predicament, but I didn’t hear much from Palestinians themselves outside of the disappointing meeting with Husseini. On the last day of the trip, I realized that the Palestinians were mostly invisible to me the entire time, except for a few glimpses of East Jerusalem and far-off Palestinian towns. The sheep-farming Bedouins living on the side of West Bank highways revealed more.
After traveling across the country for a week, I certainly know more than I knew before, and can better explain why I have trouble understanding my approach to Israel, and the appropriate role it and its politics should play in my life. I have a feeling I'll always be confused about what I think is right for that country, and how connected I should feel to it.
For many of my traveling colleagues, there's seemed to be no gray area at all. Cynical comments about “the Arabs” and McCarthyite witchhunts of suspected anti-Semites obscured our chance to find out more about the country and its politics. One journalist writing for a center-left magazine had perfected a weird totalitarian stare employed whenever my opinions weren’t pure enough to match his Zionist zeal.
If the mission of the trip was to inform me about Israeli internal politics, it was successful. But if the organizers wanted to turn me to the right*, or into the kind of monolithic, passive thinker I encountered in my group, it was an abject failure. While I’m still independent – and possibly more left -- I’m still as confused as ever.
*Josh Block, AIPAC's spokesman and the leader of the trip, says the trip was intended to show us all sides of Israeli political life, not to turn us toward the right, left, or center.