Visiting family and gauging Israelis’ reactions in these turbulent times

by Yehudi Lindeman

I travelled to Israel May 9 to visit my cousin Rivka who is like an older sister to me. Rivka, or Bep as she was known in Dutch, lives in Beth Joles, a retirement home for mostly former Dutch residents in Haifa.

Rivka was born in the Netherlands in 1924 and married her childhood sweetheart in the fall of 1942 when both were barely 18 and the Nazi persecution of the country’s Jews was at its height. She was twice arrested while she was seven months pregnant, and with her husband miraculously survived the Shoah in Holland.

Yehudi with cousin Aliza

Yehudi with cousin Aliza

May turned out to be exceptionally turbulent in Israel, militarily, politically, diplomatically and even artistically with Netta Barzilai winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon. Barzilai, 25, won with her catchy, quirky electronic dance song Toy (I’m not your toy/You stupid boy).

On May 9, the day I left Canada, Prime Minister Netanyahu, under corruption charges with his popularity in decline, was in Moscow, as Vladimir Putin’s guest. Pictures show Netanyahu with Putin as they watch the annual Victory Parade on VE-Day, in memory of the Soviet defeat of Germany in 1945.

That same night, as Netanyahu headed back to Jerusalem, the Israeli
Air Force, in a rapid response to
Iranian missiles launched from Syria against the Golan, bombed 50 Iranian targets in Syria. Many in the media regarded this act, the largest military intervention since 1974, as a tribute to Israeli military intelligence, but also as a sign of Israel gaining
influence over Russia, which did not interfere with the Israeli attacks.

Other diplomatic events followed in quick succession including the U.S. President tearing up the Iran accord and the inauguration of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Even the Haaretz daily, which blames the Prime Minister for many of Israel’s ills, showed genuine, if grudging respect for the way Netanyahu had brought Putin and Trump over to his side. “On top of the world” read a headline over a five-column report and “these are glorious days for PM Netanyahu” (May 11, 2018).

With the PM’s successful wooing of Putin, and his ability to gain “sweeping support” from Trump for his “years-long obsession with Iranian nuclear armament,” writes Haaretz, the other contenders for the PM’s job just faded away. Labour’s Avi Gabbay and Member of Knesset Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid looked like amateurs compared to the PM with his firm grip on security and feats of diplomacy.

Mossad’s earlier success in bringing back to Israel 500 kilograms of sensitive classified Iranian documents detailing Teheran’s ambitious past nuclear activities is another feather in Netanyahu’s cap and has been credited with swaying Trump’s decision to break the accord.

I was eager to know how ordinary Israelis viewed some of those events, specifically the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the U.S.

I spoke with Beth Joles residents and later on with my relatives in northern Israel, to gage their reactions. None reflected favourably on the chances of an early reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, and not one believed the recognition of Jerusalem weighed in on any chances for peace.

I had taken Air Canada’s direct flight to Tel Aviv, leaving Montreal at 6:10pm and arriving at Ben Gurion Airport just after 11am. Once in the arrival hall, it took less than 10 minutes to get my cell phone SIM card exchanged for an Israeli one. Total
expense: $40 U.S. A few minutes later I was on the train to Haifa, and headed for my destination, Beth Joles, a
senior residence.

My cousin Rivka was lingering over lunch at the exact location I’d seen her two years before. Our short conversation about my wife, Françoise, not accompanying me, reassured me that she didn’t have Alzheimer’s.

Over the next seven days I occupied a spacious one-bedroom apartment and had my meals at Beth Joles, attended an evening concert at the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and had drinks and kebab at sunset with friends at a small restauran overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. But most of all I spent time with my cousin Rivka. Our preferred location was the common room aka the Salon where coffee, tea and soup are served in the morning and at 4pm, to the delight of the eager residents, afternoon tea with delicious Viennese pastries.

My thoughts went back to the day in 1943 when Rivka and her husband had been arrested and taken to the notorious Amsterdam “Jewish Theatre,” from which she was about to be deported.

A Jewish physician, after examining her, decided that she was in her ninth month of pregnancy. She claimed that she was only in her seventh month, but the doctor persisted, and had her set free. After her release, her husband was able to flee via the roof of the building. Soon afterwards, a resistance group hid her, her husband, and her baby daughter in different locations.

Her parents and two younger brothers were killed in Sobibor in 1943. In 1951, Bep and her husband Joseph, with four children, moved to Israel where they settled in a secular cooperative moshav (agricultural village). As of now, as the lone survivor of her extended family, she has 11 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.

Just before 4pm on May 14, I asked the director to turn on the TV so I could watch the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Why did the U.S. choose that day? On May 14, 1948 Israel’s independence was declared, and apparently American protocol demanded the new embassy be inaugurated on that day, 70 years later. While watching the inauguration I realized the extent to which Israelis may experience emotional dissonance. For as 30 or 35 Israeli seniors filed into the Salon to get their coffee and pastries, not one cast more than a casual glance at the TV.

Yehudi with cousin Bep

Yehudi with cousin Bep

No one showed interest in the disturbing, even hallucinatory images. Split in the middle, the right side of Israel’s Channel 11 showed Jared Kushner, Ivanka, cabinet ministers and U.S. senators all looking happy, while the left side projected the Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza, with billowing black smoke from burning tires and the IDF’s tear gas.  The seniors preferred to schmooze, discussing plans for the Shavu’ot harvest festival.

After a week at the residence, I moved northeast to visit my cousin Aliza and her husband Avraham in Tsfat. We drove to the Golan Heights perhaps to show me that things were less tense than Westerners think. A small group of UN peacekeepers posted there were all smiles, ready to have their pictures taken.

Aliza was upbeat about the embassy move, pointing out that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was long overdue — that America had done the right thing. She added that Palestinians’ eyes would open to what has long been the reality, that it would help them realize that peace could only come if they were willing to give up their illusions.

We are a proud nation, she said, and we have to do what is good for us. We cannot be afraid. They are always against us, and so the recent events around Jerusalem will not bring peace closer or drive it further away. Peace will come, she said, once they are willing to recognize our right to be here.

Days later at Kibbutz Sasa, any talk of politics was supplanted by preparing for Shavu’ot. Sasa was founded in 1949 by a group of North Americans, many from Canada. It sits on a hill in Upper Galilee overlooking a small Lebanese village.

The exuberant festivities took place inside and in front of the dining hall Saturday and in the fields Sunday. Children sang and danced, freshly harvested products and newborn animals were shown. Glowing parents showed off their babies born in the past year — 12 in all.

My cousin, also named Rivka, a social worker, expressed sorrow about the embassy move. She said it would only increase tension with the Palestinians.

I then travelled to Tel Aviv by train to visit Rachel, my step-sister-in-law. It took us 12 minutes by car to get to the lovely Tel Baruch Beach. Walking along the wide beach with its fine sand and watching the happy goings-on around me, I wondered if most Israelis were in denial about what was going on inside and around their country.

Or did one need a historical context to grasp the Israelis’ communal anxiety about security coupled with their talent for living in the present? Though I could not connect the dots, it occurred to me that even asking those few questions had brought me closer to understanding the matzav or “situation” as the Israelis so poignantly call it.

Yehudi Lindeman, a retired Professor of English at McGill University, was hidden in at least 12 different locations in the Netherlands 1943-1945. He is a founding member of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants.

1 Comment on "Visiting family and gauging Israelis’ reactions in these turbulent times"

  1. Don Rosenbaum | July 19, 2018 at 9:13 am | Reply

    Really interesting. Thank you !

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