It’s always the same routine. I fly over the sea towards Israel, reading, working, sleeping, but at some moment I look through the window and there is the coastline. Usually it’s the Tel-Aviv coastline with its tall buildings and long, sandy beaches, looking a little like Miami Beach. This time the plane entered Israel a little more south, and I looked out the window towards Holon and Ashdod.
It used to be that incoming planes would glide down into the airport within 5 minutes of crossing the coastline, reminding passengers of how small the country is. That stopped some years ago, when they were required to make a wide circle and come in from the east, which also reminded me of how small the country was because if the pollution wasn’t too bad, I could see Jerusalem in the distance, the city I’d be heading to after landing
There was one exception. Once, aboard a Lufthansa flight, I watched as the airplane flew right towards the runway without making the circle. Seconds before its wheels touched the ground it suddenly veered and flew up like a rocket. It was a time of plane hijackings and bombings, and people grew very, very quiet. But the plane regained altitude, made the regular big circle, and came in from the correct eastern direction. Nobody clapped, as they usually do in this part of the world, when its wheels touched the ground.
I was born here, so in some way I could title this Going Home. But is there a home where ambivalence doesn’t reign?
I was born a year after Israel won its Independence War. My father was wounded and the kibbutz my parents valiantly fought to defend was so devastated by Egyptian artillery that, at the end of the war, they were told to abandon it and restart the kibbutz further north. Though they were following the orders of Levi Eshkol himself, a future prime minister of Israel, they never received the certificates of recognition others received who fought in the war because they’d abandoned the land. It took hardliner Menachem Begin, when he became prime minister, to personally order that they receive those certificates decades later. But courage in the face of far superior forces, with artillery and planes that at that time they didn’t have, under the command of an army captain called Gamal Abdul Nasser who was to become the future president of Egypt, losing one-third of their comrades in the battle, were like nothing to the mantra: Never give up the land.
My mother took that mantra to heart and has backed right-wing governments ever since. Over the years there were some years of argument between us, but far more of smoldering silences.
I’m coming in for her 90th birthday. She is one of the last few remaining survivors of the terrifying 1940s in East Europe.
Each time I fly over this coastline I feel the intensity of the life behind this moment, the plane gliding in to land in Ben-Gurion Airport and a woman walking down the aisle to join the lines of passengers in the elegant, modern Terminal 3. Her mind can’t grapple with all the things she knows had to happen so that she could take her place in the passport line. What, in the black backpack she wears over one shoulder, points to the life-and-death scenarios her mother faced back then, in East Europe and in Israel? What, in the white sweater she still wears though now it’s hot, will signal to any observer the strains, the will, and the incredible courage of that history? The hazard and risk, how all it took was one turn here rather than there, one impulse not listened to, one detail overlooked, and she wouldn’t be going through the big double doors and searching for a brother-in-law waiting to bring her up to Jerusalem. How easy it would be for me not to exist at all.
My mother gave me not just life, but one remarkably free of the kind of life-and-death struggle she had to face. I had other struggles for sure, the kind those of us with food, shelter, and safety have, but I never made the mistake of thinking that one was comparable to the other. She gave me that baseline comfort, and then watched me become someone she couldn’t understand, who loved hanging out with people of different religions, races, and cultures, who supported the Palestinian cause, and was uncomfortable with being just with Jews.
I don’t recognize you, she often told me. To which I had little reply except to feel it was a tribute to her efforts to give me the things she never had. Reaching fruition, those efforts provided the wide open space in which I could turn, like that Lufthansa flight, trying this and that, and finally going my own way.
Refugees crossing the Mediterranean from south to north (then it was from west to east) know of only one direction where safety lies. She gave me a far, far wider compass.