My first day back in Tel Aviv after seven years away, I buy and insert a new SIM card, open my phone and gasp when a name — resurrected, perhaps, by the international area code — appears in my contacts: Nava.
I first interviewed Nava in early 2011. Then, on a cold winter night, she called to invite me to join her and other protesters as they demonstrated against public housing evictions. Nava was one of the Jewish Israelis who was slated to lose her home. So I followed her as she marched down a major road in the south of the city, weaving through traffic with a sign; her fellow demonstrators held signs decrying Israeli officials as “government for the rich.”
I walked behind her as she and others sat down in the street, stopping traffic. And I crouched and snapped a picture of Nava — a petite, dark woman with long curly hair — as she plopped down on the road in front of a line of magavnikim, Israeli Border patrol, and police officers. She was fighting for more than her home, I realized. This was a struggle for dignity; this was a fight to force Israel to make good on its promises — to be a refuge for Jews the world over, regardless of who they were, where they came from and what they were worth.
I know journalists aren’t supposed to fall in love with their subjects but, in that moment, I did.
Now I had returned, nearly 75 years after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. I’d come back to gauge how much the state of Israel, three-quarters of a century later, has kept its oath to provide a safe, prosperous haven for Jewish people from all over the world. It was February 2022, and back in the U.S. partisan divisions had grown deeper than ever, everyone seemingly entrenched in their own positions, more impervious to hearing each other out, more radicalized. I wondered how much Israel — already, from its inception, the epitome of bifurcation — had slid in the same direction.
“I’d come back to gauge how much the state of Israel, three-quarters of a century later, has kept its oath, to provide a safe, prosperous haven for Jewish people from all over the world.”
Looking at Nava’s name on my phone I recalled how she’d taken me by the hand and pulled me into her neighborhood, Kfar Shalem, to show me remnants of the Palestinian village, Salama, that had stood here prior to Israel’s war of independence, which erupted after the 1947 U.N. vote. Standing in the sun, Nava pointed to a stone arch and said, “They kept their horses there.”
By “they” she meant Kfar Shalem’s former inhabitants. Refusing to use the word Palestinian, she said, “They’re Arabs” — two words that said everything about her politics. I, too, had offered two words that had said a lot about my politics: Al Jazeera. That’s who I was writing the piece for back then in 2011, a media outlet owned by the government of Qatar, a country that doesn’t formally recognize Israel. Though it was clear that we stood on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, I didn’t mind. She’d moved through the neighborhood’s remains respectfully; she was thoughtful when she spoke of the people who’d lived here before us — and by us, I mean the Jewish people.
Gesturing to a crumbling wall that the state had partially destroyed, she asked me if I thought it was true what people say — that Israel wanted to erase the history of the place.
Thinking yes, I’d said instead, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, “But I’m not sure.”
In that doubt dwelled curiosity, openness — a willingness to interrogate things. Though she was a die-hard fan of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she told me she was asking questions about him, too, and had voted left in municipal elections a few years before.
She knew the name of the Palestinian family who’d lived in her home before her parents had gotten possession of it in 1948 and, gazing at the stones, she wondered aloud what had happened to them. But at the same time, this was the house she had been born in and her parents and a brother had died in. This place, she told me, “is my air.”
I knew if that Palestinian family came back she wasn’t about to hand over her home, and I also knew that she was unapologetic about what had happened here in 1948. Still, in my mind, her curiosity about Kfar Shalem’s previous inhabitants betrayed an empathy, a softness. Her words revealed compassion. And it made me sympathetic to her despite our huge ideological differences.
The affection had seemed mutual: Despite our very different backgrounds and very different politics, Nava had called me “gingit sheli,” my redhead.
Nava had been on my mind even before I left South Florida, where I now live with my Palestinian husband (another story for another time) and our two young children. She’d come into my head as I’d packed, mulling over the question of whether Israel was fulfilling its promise to the Jewish people. Nava, who seemed to embody many of the contradictions that plague Israel, was, I thought, the ideal person to ask.
Now, standing there on Allenby Street, in the middle of the sidewalk, holding my phone, staring at her number, I wonder: Do I just call? What if she doesn’t remember me? I mentally rehearse, in Hebrew, what I want to say to her. But the Hebrew in my mind is always grammatically perfect and unaccented, but what comes out of my mouth is the Hebrew of an immigrant to Israel — which I am — marred by unmistakably American consonants and vowels. The gap between my knowledge of the language and what I actually say leaves me blushing; too nervous to call, I slide the phone into my backpack.
I run the rest of the way to the apartment a friend has loaned me, passing construction sites filled with Palestinian workers, and spend the day preoccupied with making plans for the week, Nava lingering in my mind as I do so. On Friday, I’ll head to Tapuach Junction in the West Bank, where left-wing Israelis will protest a new Jewish settlement called Evyatar. If efforts to build the settlement are successful — Evyatar was established, some structures hastily built, and then was evacuated due to Israeli government intervention — it will stand on the land of several Palestinian villages; among them Beita, an Arabic name that literally means “home.”
Jewish settlers have been open about the strategic location of the place: It will break up the territorial contiguity between Beita and nearby Palestinian villages, they said in a Facebook post. Territorial contiguity, of course, is crucial to a future Palestinian state; a disjointed, noncontiguous state wouldn’t be economically viable, experts at The Rand Corp. say. The Jewish settlements are also, according to international law, illegal, because they fall outside the Green Line, the boundary drawn in the armistice agreements that ended Israel’s war of independence, land that Israel nevertheless began occupying after the second big war in 1967. Since Evyatar was established, Beita residents have protested the new settlement, clashing with both settlers and the Israeli army. Soldiers have used gunfire during clashes and at least eight Palestinians have died in the past year.
To get a sense of the price of the Jewish state that continues to encroach on Palestinian land beyond the Green Line, I want to go to Beita and talk to the Palestinians about what is happening there. So I get in touch with a Palestinian woman, Lina, who lives in the West Bank and does some translation work.
Lina and I make arrangements via Facebook — the Israeli and Palestinian cellular networks no longer connect — to travel to Beita. As we talk, I mention that I should be transparent with her and tell her that I have an Israeli passport. Beyond the emotional baggage of being a citizen, my ID also affects what parts of the West Bank I can legally enter and exit.
“How did you get it?” she wants to know.
I admit that I’m an immigrant to Israel, that I took citizenship — a decision that many Palestinians find more egregious a sin than being born here.
I admit that I’m an immigrant to Israel, that I took citizenship — a decision that many Palestinians find more egregious a sin than being born here. You can’t choose where you were born. But choosing to participate in a system that offers Jews from the diaspora an option to live here under the Law of Return — while denying Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were displaced by the 1948 war the same — is, in the eyes of some, unforgivable. In fact, the Law of Return is one of the pieces of legislation advocates point to as proof positive that Israel makes national distinctions between Jews and Palestinians.
The Law of Return, which was passed in 1950, gives “Every Jew ... the right to come to this country as an oleh,” a new citizen. A 1970 amendment extended this right to the spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews, as well — a move that echoes Jewishness as defined by the Nazis in the Nuremberg Race Laws that declared anyone with Jewish grandparents to be either Jewish or mischlinge, mixed race. The idea behind the Law of Return, of course, is to make Israel a safe haven for the Jewish people — it formalizes Israel as a place where all Jews can find refuge.
Taking Israeli citizenship, Lina says to me now on a Facebook call, affirms that the place exists. Sitting in an apartment in Tel Aviv, a bustling city of nearly half a million, I don’t even know what to say. I look out the window. Clearly, the state of Israel exists. And, at this point, I think it’s unlikely that it’s going anywhere. This was the same debate I had with myself in early 2008, before I took citizenship — whether my doing so would actively hurt the Palestinians who can’t return or if it was a way of denying their national aspirations.
I try to explain now to Lina that my decision was pragmatic. I tell her how I arrived in 2007 on a volunteer visa and had gotten deeply involved in the migrant worker and asylum-seeker communities; my visa was going to run out and I wanted to stay to continue working with and for these groups.
“I think that was selfish and privileged of you,” Lina says. And then the call disconnects.
Five minutes later, she gets back in touch and explains that it was a coincidence — at the very moment she got upset her internet cut out. Nonetheless, she isn’t sure she wants to work with an Israeli and so she will need to think about whether we can go to Beita together. And if we do go, she says, she wants me to be transparent about my second passport with everyone we interview. There are so many Israelis with dual citizenship wandering around out here, disguised as foreigners, the people in Beita have a right to know my full identity, she says. And, she adds, I need to know ahead of time that it’s possible we’ll go out there and no one will be willing to talk to me. In that case, I will need to pay her even if no one speaks to me.
I’m apprehensive about all of this — I want to go to Beita to interview Palestinians, not to have tense conversations about my second passport. There’s also the fact that things can get very violent in Beita; I remember covering clashes in villages where Palestinians have opened their homes and businesses to Israeli protesters and journalists seeking to escape the violence. What if things get hot in Beita, but no one will give me shelter? What if I’m stuck out on the street amid live gunfire? The image of this flashes through my mind. We agree to take a day to think about this possible trip to Beita.
In the meantime, I manage to install Hebrew to my phone and work up the nerve to message Nava. After snapping an awkward selfie — no makeup, a close-lipped smile — I send it to her along with a text.
Maybe Nava’s number has changed. The next day, I ask around — Tel Aviv is at once large and small. Everyone is connected somehow. Less than an hour later, I have Nava’s new number. I call and say, “Nava, it’s Mya, the journalist you talked to about 10 years ago — gingit shelach, your redhead.”
“Gingit sheli! My redhead! I was just thinking about you a few days ago. How are you?” she asks, using a phrase that is both formal and earnest, something that cuts past the superficial, slangy how are you’s that young Israelis offer each other when they don’t really care.
I interpret all of this as a good sign and tell Nava that I’m fine. That I’m living in America now but I’m back to report a story. That I’m hoping to visit her again in Kfar Shalem and find out what has happened with the eviction.
“Today, I’m in Jerusalem,” she says and I wonder, for a moment, if she has joined the struggle against the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. I wonder if she has connected their plight with her own — a thought that gives me hope.
But before I have a chance to ask, Nava tells me, “Call me back tomorrow so we can talk a bit and maybe set up a meeting.”
I wonder about the maybe. Her reluctance seems odd. On the one hand, I’m her gingit, still, but on the other, she’s not sure she wants to meet me. Brushing the feeling off, I tell myself it’s about her busy schedule. I promise to call her back.
The next day, I try Nava but there’s no answer. I have a fantasy that I will see her on Friday, at the protest at Tapuach Junction or at the protest in Sheikh Jarrah. I want to believe that she has made the connection between the state that seeks to evict Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and the state that is trying, at her expense, to hand her neighborhood over to land developers.
The third day — the day, in theory, Nava and I are to meet — she finally answers. She doesn’t greet me warmly this time. Rather, her voice and words are tinged with suspicion.
“What’s the flavor?” she asks.
I don’t understand. Confused, I repeat her words back to her. “The flavor?”
“Nu,” she says, impatient. “The flavor of your article.”
I realize she means the angle. Uncomfortable, I babble about some of my underlying questions — What was the promise of the Jewish state? Has Israel fulfilled that promise? What will she look like at 100? — in my heavily accented Hebrew.
“So you want to use my story to show that the state is discriminatory, right?”
“No,” I say, finding her comment odd. After all, this is something she, herself, has said about the state in the past. She has accused the state of racism. I explain that I’m curious what she thinks about the questions I’m grappling with.
“Let me ask you a question first,” she says. “And you have to answer or I won’t sit with you. What do you think: Should Israel be Jewish or democratic?”
“Does she have to choose?” I ask. “Can’t she be both?”
“No. No. She can’t. She has to be Jewish. And I can tell by your answer what you think,” Nava says, explaining how tiny Israel is and how we just want this small space for ourselves, while the Arabs have 22 other states to choose from.
Then she changes tracks: “Let me ask you something else, Mya. Are you Jewish?”
“What ‘of course’?” she responds.
What I’m thinking is, Don’t you remember me, Nava? Don’t you remember my story and the things I shared with you? Don’t you remember my tortured love for this place? But what I say instead is something like, “How else would I have citizenship?”
“I don’t know,” she concedes. “OK. You’re Jewish. Then what are you ashamed of? Why are you ashamed of your Jewishness?”
I begin to protest, “I’m not ashamed — ”
She cuts me off. “Because me, I’m not ashamed. I’m proud of my culture, I’m proud of my roots, I’m proud of my Torah.”
She tells me that Jewish people died on their way from Yemen to Israel, referring, perhaps to the antisemitic riots in Yemen that erupted after the U.N. vote that partitioned Palestine or those who died during Israel’s Magic Carpet Operation to evacuate Yemeni Jews. She tells me that if you dig deep enough, you’ll see that we were here before the Palestinians. She tells me that the people who became Yemeni Jews were the original inhabitants of the land.
Then she asks me where my people came from.
My family history is complicated, my lineage crooked, marred by affairs and divorces and remarriages and so many ands. I simplify things and tell her that my family is from Europe — part from Italy and part from Poland. This makes me Ashkenazi — a European Jew. Forget about the Palestinians, now we’ve stepped into the territory of Israel’s inner racial tensions that pits Mizrachim like Nava — those who hail from Muslim and Arab countries, a group that, on the whole tends to lean and vote right — against the Ashkenazim.
“All you Ashkanazim are the same. You’re all leftists. You’re a traitor.”
She asks about my army service and I admit that I didn’t serve; she roars that everyone goes to the army. And because I didn’t, I’m not really a citizen, she says.
“You’re not really an Israeli. You live in the United States and you come back to write things about us and you do it at my expense.”
I listen in silence, hoping that she’ll calm down. She has a right to express herself and I have a duty to listen. She doesn’t calm down. I interrupt and say, evenly, “So I’m guessing you don’t want me to come?”
“Mamash lo. Mamash mamash lo,” No way. Really no way.
I thank her nonetheless. We both say “bye” — at least there’s that tiny shred of civility — and hang up.
I look at the phone’s screen and see that the call was 17 minutes long.
Standing at the window in the lingering silence, I think about how, in interview after interview, the other Israelis I’d spoken with said that the biggest threat to the future of the Jewish state is internal — whether it comes from Israel’s policies of settling and occupying the Palestinian territories or from something else. Here, as in the U.S., something had changed. The partisan divisions had grown sharper. The ability to talk to each other seemingly vanished. The art of listening warbled out of reach like a mirage.
Alone, I look out at the city. At the country that exists.