Right now, the war in Gaza has posed very sharp questions to many, many people. One of those questions concerns the fundamental character of the state of Israel, and whether there should even be a state set aside for the Jewish people. I want to share my experience—including my direct experience in the state of Israel itself—many years ago, at a different time when world events were also forcing people to rethink some very fundamental things. Much of what follows below is the story of how a young person in a time of crisis grappled at the intersection of politics, morality and epistemology.
By early 1969, I stood at a crossroads.
From 1965 on, I had first opposed and then, as I came to understand more about it, more firmly and passionately oppose the U.S. war against Vietnam—a war that killed as many as 3 million Vietnamese and was marked by gruesome atrocities carried out by American forces.
By 1967, I had gotten to the point where, to paraphrase Mario Savio (who led the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964), the system had made me so sick at heart that I had thrown myself on the gears of the machinery. I did this by refusing a student deferment and burning my draft card as an act of defiance against the Selective Service System—the machinery of the draft that was transforming teenagers into killers for American imperialism. This carried the penalty of five years in jail—but I felt very deeply that I could not bring myself to cooperate with a system carrying out genocide.
If I had learned anything from my Jewish atheist parents about the Holocaust, I had learned that.
This was at first an individual act of conscience. But then I made the next step—I persuaded others to do the same, I began to lead demonstrations, I got arrested, and then—once drafted—I refused induction into the army.
But I hadn’t made the leap into revolution for real and still less into communism. My understanding of the causes of the war was not very deep and not very scientific. And after a while I got disoriented—“demonstrations and sacrifices didn’t seem to be doing any good, how would we ever even stop the war?”—and then I got demoralized. I was still angry and I would still come out to demonstrations, especially against the repression of the Black Panther Party. And I still couldn’t stand what I had come to learn about the real history and nature of America’s unjust wars and horrific treatment of Black and other oppressed peoples, basic as that was at that point. But I couldn’t see a way forward.
And that’s when I thought—hmmm, maybe I should check out Israel?
The “One Tiny Exception”
Now even in 1969, it was still possible to be on some level against what the U.S. was doing all over the world but to make “one tiny exception” for Israel. And actually, to judge from the number of otherwise progressive Jews who today are saying they feel “betrayed” by the fact that other progressives are not joining them in backing Israel even as it wages a genocidal war on Gaza, apparently this “tiny exception” is still alive in too many.
Back then, Israel even had this quasi-socialist veneer. The kibbutzes—which were collectively owned farms in which meals were taken as a group and child-rearing was often shared—were portrayed as a form of socialism, never mind that only two percent of Israelis actually resided on kibbutzes.
So I sold my stereo, took the inheritance I had gotten from my recently deceased grandfather, and bought a ticket on the Icelandic Airlines overnight plane to Israel. Most of my family and friends were all for it—although one guy I was pretty close to told me he thought I was “jumping from one fascist police state to another.”
But I wasn’t ready to hear it at that point.
My First Two Acquaintances: You Did What?!?
When I got to Tel Aviv, I grabbed a coffee and walked over to a few young women who were sitting at an outdoor table, and introduced myself. Conversation got going and at one point I mentioned my stand against the war in Vietnam.
They were shocked. “How can you go against what your country tells you?!?”
I tried to explain, going into some of the concrete examples of the stomach-turning horrors that America was perpetrating on Vietnam. “Don’t you see?” I said. “America is carrying out nothing short of genocide in Vietnam. And when your country does genocide, the Nuremberg trials laid out that you had a moral and a legal obligation to oppose it.” (The Nuremberg trials of former Nazi officials for war crimes were carried out by the U.S., Soviet, British and French authorities after World War 2.)
More shock. “No Israeli would think of such a thing,” they assured me, and they turned away and refused to look at me for a minute. That bit about “no Israeli” wasn’t quite true, of course—over the years, especially as Israel has carried out increasingly aggressive, violent, repressive and indeed genocidal actions, more than a few Israelis have taken courageous stands of conscience against what their government does. But what was true was that by and large, the reflex opposition and non-comprehension of these young women would typify what I ran into—and what still typifies Israeli society.
Avi: Who Is “Us” and Who Is “Them”?
After a few days of sightseeing, I got assigned to a kibbutz. I made friends, but there really weren’t very many Israelis my age there—most were off in the cities, or in the army, or at school.
Then I met someone I’ll call Avi. He was a little bit younger than me, and had come to Israel from an orphanage in Morocco—and this was true for a number of the teens on the kibbutz. Avi wanted to improve his English and to learn about America and I wanted to learn how he saw the world—but more than that, Avi had an inquisitive, enthusiastic spirit that resonated with me. He wanted to know about America, and I told him how I saw it.
But one day Avi sat down at the table and very soberly repeated a tale that he had heard from an older guy on the kibbutz. The guy told him that he had been “surrounded” in his car one day by Black people while he had been driving through the ghetto in Detroit. He drove away when the light changed, but the guy told Avi you have to really watch out in America. I said I don’t know what happened to his friend, but I had friends too—Black friends I had made in college, some of whom I worked together with when I became politically active—friends who had “schooled” me to things, friends who lived in cities just like Detroit, and for a while I had lived in or near ghettos myself and wasn’t naive. But I also had some sense of the history and current-day reality of things beyond one single incident, whether it happened or not. I had also been around enough to both know and know of more than a few white people who were very prone to exaggerate, jump to conclusions, misinterpret people not putting up with the bullshit that they had been forced to endure for decades and centuries, and to downright fabricate bullshit about any Black people they encountered… so let’s talk, I said.
It wasn’t the first time I had talked about the oppression of Black people with Avi, and he had been open to listening before. But there was something about the story this guy had told Avi that had gripped him, something Avi was identifying with on a deep level that I couldn’t seem to shake or penetrate and, as I remember it, couldn’t even reach. It’s not that difficult to know what it was—the sense from those who have some small stake in things to see those “below them” as threats—but it was another reminder of how brutally familiar this society was to the one in America I had supposedly rejected and left.
Bethlehem: Little Children of Bethlehem
During my first few days in Israel, I had visited Jerusalem. I love visiting historic sites in general and I have to say that even for an atheistic Jew there was something “heavy” about walking the Via Dolorosa—the trail where Jesus supposedly carried the cross, as well as different Jewish historical sites. But I also have to say that there was something very disquieting about seeing extremely impoverished Palestinian people as I walked Jerusalem, hour after hour. If the conversation with the two women over coffee had planted the first seeds of “uh, oh,” what seemed to me to be the ghetto-ization of the Palestinians in Jerusalem had sown the second.
When the kibbutz offered a field trip to Bethlehem—which had been illegally annexed by Israel during the 1967 War, just a year and a half earlier—the history buff in me jumped at the chance. But in Bethlehem the poverty and oppression was even sharper than Jerusalem, and the looks from the Palestinian children and young teens toward the gaggle of people from the kibbutz were far colder and more penetrating than those of the small toddlers in Jerusalem. A nagging sense of “something’s wrong here” that I had been dealing with since that first seaside conversation in Tel Aviv began to assert itself more powerfully.
At one point, after we had seen the barn where Jesus had supposedly been born, the guide from the kibbutz hurried us back onto the bus and, as it pulled out, the kids from the neighborhood began throwing stones at it—the worst nightmare of Avi’s mentor on the kibbutz. No, they didn’t do any damage—in fact, for me they did a great good by helping to gel a conviction I was slowly coming to.
“Are you gonna be ‘riding this bus’ your whole life, dashing away from the anger of the oppressed? Go back home and deal with this shit. Quit running away.”
So I went back to the U.S., went to trial (I was found guilty, sentenced, but then won the appeal), and a month later—after the murder of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by the FBI and Chicago police as he lay sleeping—I plunged back into the movement and never looked back. Less than a year later, I joined the Revolutionary Union, the communist movement that formed the foundation of today’s Revcoms.
Settling Some Things, Rupturing with Others, and Going for FULL Emancipation
But that didn’t happen overnight after I left Israel. I had to come to understand that America’s wars were driven not by greed or bad policy or racism or sadism, but by an underlying and unstoppable logic—the logic of expand-or-die. This was insanity, but there is method to the madness. The same basic rule that drives every capitalist enterprise drives every capitalist-imperialist nation to seize whole parts of the world to exploit. It drives those imperialists to wage war against people in less economically developed parts of the world to gain control of and exploit those areas, and to wage war against other imperialist powers over WHO would control those areas—whether themselves, or through proxies like Israel. It generates, or it adapts and reinforces, the horrible relations between people—the white supremacy, the male supremacy, the nationalism—that help keep the whole thing going. Israel was one cog in that system—and in fact, the Zionists had sold themselves to the highest bidder as a particularly invaluable cog, one that could, as the founder of Zionism put it, “be a little loyal Jewish Ulster1 in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”
My friend who had warned me had been right after all. I got deeper into the revolutionary movement and began to develop a deep commitment to the emancipation of people all over the world and an end to ALL oppression. And as I did, I realized—and I was helped to realize, through struggle—that I had to break with the idea that because of what had been done to Jews they, of all peoples, needed a special state of their own in case things got bad. After all, you couldn’t exactly be a consistent internationalist but still have some nationalism stored out back with a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” label on it. “Never Again” has to mean never again for everyone in principle, and if you insist on holding on to an outpost—a “safe space”—that only exists because of and through its service to the very imperialist system you say you are opposing… you have already conceded what has to be the largest goal of the struggle.
Our goal has to be nothing less than the emancipation of ALL humanity. To draw from something Bob Avakian has said in a different but related context, “once you have raised your sights to all this, how could you not feel compelled to take an active part in the world historic struggle to realize it; and why would you want to lower your sights to anything less?”
And Now What?
I wasn’t the only one who made that rupture. And while times have changed in many ways, these times demand that many more Jewish people be worked with, and struggled with, to make that same break and these times actually provide a special opening to do that—in a number of dimensions, on a number of levels. The ugly, and yes, genocidal logic of the state of Israel is sharply posed in the rubble of Gaza, the decimated hospitals, the horrific body count of children. THIS MUST STOP!
Those who still defend and cling to Israel must be and can be sharply struggled with: to the extent their Zionism, even refined Zionism, still co-exists with strivings toward social justice, those strivings have to find expression in standing up now for what is right and going deeper into why these horrors are happening. Those who still vacillate, who stand aside even if in anguish, must face the reality of the horrible genocide that their country is raining down on the Palestinian people and they must take the responsibility to publicly and loudly oppose it.
And even with those Jewish people who have stood up and are standing up, and contributing so much in doing so in the face of threats and slander, the struggle must also be waged—to come to see what it actually means to understand that the horror being perpetrated in Gaza flows from a system, to study that system, to see that the very existence of Israel is a product of it, and to work for the only thing that can uproot it: a communist revolution, here in the U.S., in Palestine/Israel, and around the world.
In a moment like this, there are many more people ready to fully confront reality… ready to be struggled with to break with long-standing understanding… ready to resolve deep-rooted conflicts in their own understanding… if we struggle with them.