When we children were living there some fifty years ago, it was still morning in Israel. There was no West Bank, no Gaza (they were occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively) and our elders, teachers, milkmen, booksellers, and postal workers were very often the still-tattooed survivors of Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen.
We sang songs under the lemon trees.
They were tender people (some didn’t speak much) but they often blessed us by placing their worn-out hands gently on our foreheads while we scrambled for ice cream or to catch the diesel-spewing old busses gathering us for school. We were the future they never saw in their nightmares.
The citrus-scented breeze that faithfully drifted in from the groves the early settlers had planted decades before the European genocide brought with it the smell of rebirth. We were not interested in war or expansion of territory (neither concept was enveloped within the curriculum of our elementary school); we sang songs under lemon trees, planted onions and sunflowers, and our older cousins—male and female—donned their olive army uniforms at the age of 18 with pride and a genuine sense of inviolate national service.
We were now Hebrews; the gallant, nimble, disciples of Joshua and Deborah. We were not “Yids”—the weak-chinned ghetto dwellers of Kracow, Warsaw, or Prague. We were proud of the National Water Carrier, which brought moist and sweet Galilean relief all the way down to the parched Negev sands; we basked under the shade of a million eucalyptuses that had been planted during the previous 100 years by our grandparents and great-grandparents.
We dreamed of peace with our neighbors, who were mostly faceless and as far removed as they were sometimes in the next valley. We were not scared and did not realize they were being motivated to exterminate us, to literally kill and drive us into the sea, until the miraculous Six Day War of 1967. They had gathered armies from almost a dozen of their nations that May and we surprised them and overwhelmed them between June 5 and 11 in a rout as decisive as the subsequent 47 years have been uncertain and disappointing.
Our young soldiers entered eastern Jerusalem (only after the Jordanians began shelling our schools and apartment houses in the western sector) and found the desecrated and broken tombstones of our ancestors, the ransacked schools where ancient texts had once been debated, and a Wailing Wall filled with dust, moss, loneliness—yet waiting for us.
That summer, 1967, when I visited my birth land as a 14 year-old, it was clear that my people believed, deeply, profoundly, religiously, that we had won the peace for which he had been forced to fight for brilliantly and with the loss of 800 lives.
No other people has even been so vanquished by winning a war it never wanted in the first place. No other democracy has ever been so punished for defending itself and asking for what is a normal existence. No other group of children, kissed by survivors of the Kingdom of Death, will ever let go of our unyielding dream of life.
This is the biblical weight of loving the Holy Land.
See my new book, ‘DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers.’