My first visit to Israel was in late 1963. At that time I was 14 and met a family on a kibbutz in northern Israel that had been founded by an Anglo-American Zionist group. There was a tenuous connection between my family and some of the American founders and I was invited to return the following summer, when I would be 15, to work on the kibbutz for three months. Kibbutz Kfar Blum is located a few kilometers from what were then the Syrian and Lebanese borders to the east and west. The Golan Heights overlooked the kibbutz and the River Jordan flowed alongside the kibbutz on its way to Galilee. The town of Kiryat Shmona was six kilometers to the west.
It was an idealistic time. The population of Israel was less than half of what it is today. Syria was the problem and it was not unusual for the Syrian army to lob occasional artillery shells in the direction of Kfar Blum and some neighboring kibbutzim to the south. None of us was allowed to wander far across the Jordan since infiltrators were known to kidnap those who strayed. There was an outdoor theater for movies. When we went, it was surrounded by machine gun emplacements for protection. At night the kibbutz was patrolled by armed guards carrying Uzis in case of attack.
With all of that, it did not feel dangerous. The general belief was that peace was coming and that Lebanon would be the second country to sign a treaty but that it was too weak to be the first. After working for 2 1/2 months on the kibbutz I spent two weeks hitchhiking around the country. I had little money and survived by making lots of friends. I went to Caesarea and slept on the beaches. In Tel Aviv I stayed with a family that were cousins to a person I met on the beach.
My next stop was Jerusalem. The area north of Jerusalem was the narrowest part of the country. The road into Jerusalem was in a narrow valley and the hills on either side were controlled by Palestinnians during the 1947-48 war. Trucks littered the side of the road, memories of the siege of Jerusalem. Convoys of trucks was sent in to relieve the city. I met a man who was in a convoy where 90% of the trucks were destroyed. It took more than a day to travel a few miles and the convoy arrived during the sabbath. Religious Jews stoned the soldiers as they entered the city for violating the sabbath. While the popular song Babi Yar commemorated the massacre of 33,000 Jews in a ravine in the Ukraine, it was often viewed as a tribute to those who died in the convoys into Jerusalem in 1948.
In Jerusalem we would climb the wall separating the Israeli and Jordanian sections of the city although we were warned to be careful since the Jordanian guards were sometimes nervous and would fire toward the Israeli sector. While walking through the orthodox section of the city, my yamulke was blown off by the wind. That was a problem since the orthodox population was known to stone men who walked about with their heads uncovered. I chased by yamulke down he street. By the time I caught it, I realized I was in the no-man's zone between Israel and Jordan near the Mandelbaum Gate. Happily, no one decided to shoot me.
After Jerusalem, I caught a ride with a French student group on its way to Eilat. The first day we went as far as Be'er Sheva where we were staying in a youth hostel. While walking around I was invited to join a wedding reception which netted me a free dinner. Later that evening I was invited to a Bar Mitzva reception but was already full. Before we left Be'er Sheva, we had to load automatic weapons into the bus since the trip through the desert was considered too dangerous for an unarmed vehicle.
My ties to Israel go back far, but that does not mean that my support is either blind or unconditional. Two years after I spent my summer in Israel, the 6-Day War began. Two of the children I had lived with that summer, Avinash and Shlomite, were in the army in the middle of the battles. Kfar Blum was hit by artillery shells while I sat in my school in Switzerland wondering what was going on. Israel captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Eastern Jerusalem, and the Sinai during the war. The Sinai was not considered to be critical. However, the other areas were considered to be essential to the long term safety of Israel.
Unfortunately, those areas were populated by Arabs and with their capture, Israel became a colonial power. It was in an untenable situation. It needed the caputed lands to provide buffers in case of attack. If it didn't return the lands, a negotiated peace would never be possible. If it annexed the lands, it would either have to give citizenship rights to the resident Arab population, or govern the captured territories as a police state.
This dilemma has not just been the source of friction between Israel and the rest of the world ever since, it has been the primary source of political dispute within Israel itself. The parties on the left have opposed the settlements on the West Bank and have favored a negotiated peace with the return of all lands except Eastern Jerusalem. The parties on the right have believed that the captured lands are part of historic Israel and are needed to accommodate settlers. The pendulum has swung back and forth and the soul of Israel has been damaged as a result.
There will be no clean solutions in the Middle East. While Israel is and I hope will remain our strongest ally in the region, I do not believe that the U.S. can support continued occupation of the conquered territories as vassal states. Even in Jerusalem, if Israel wants to continue to occupy the full city it must give complete citizenship rights to all residents. Ultimately it will need to accept a two state solution and accept that those settlers who choose to remain in the West Bank will become citizens of the Palestinian state.
And Israel will need to confront the divisions within its own population between the Jews and Arabs. A fact that receives little attention is that Israel remained a strong ally to South Africe during the period of Apartheid. Israel understood and sympathized with the position of the white government. One of the sharper and more disillusioning memories I have of my summer in Israel was from a bus trip from Tel Aviv to the north. Outside of Galillee a man was standing by the road waiting for the bus. The bus driver stopped to pick him up and them realized he was an Arab. He closed the doors of the bus and left the man standing in the sun. Maybe the bus on the following day would choose to let him ride.