Twenty years ago I wrote an article for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs entitled, “ Alone Among My Peers at My Yeshiva University High School Reunion,” outlining my political evolution from Zionism to anti-Zionism. The good news and the bad news is that the main theme seems as relevant as ever.
I’ve since made a number of mostly minor edits, annotated a couple of historical references and I’ve added a paragraph defining Zionism.
Alone Among My Peers at My Yeshiva University High School Reunion
From Zionism to Anti-Zionism: A Personal Journey
by Ronald Bleier
In the spring of 1990 I was one of some forty men and a handful of spouses who attended a reunion on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the graduation of 75 young men in 1960 from Yeshiva University High School of Brooklyn. In the congratulatory atmosphere of renewed camaraderie that suffused those few hours on a blustery Sunday afternoon in April, not a word of politics was spoken. Nevertheless I found myself deeply isolated because, from the many references to Israel by my former classmates, I suspected I was alone among my peers in my support for self-determination and justice for the Palestinian people.
At Crown Heights Yeshiva, my elementary school in Brooklyn, we were all, as a matter of course, indoctrinated in Zionist ideology. As was usual among yeshivas in those days, we all received pale blue and white Jewish National Fund coin solicitation boxes to raise money in support of Israel. I remember the day one of my fourth grade classmates, a tough little guy named Martin, broke into tears because our rabbi insisted that he take a new coin box and turn in the already heavy old one before Martin could fill it to the top.
I recall my confusion by the assertion of one of my rabbis in elementary school that Israel was not an expansionist state, and had no designs on the territory of the surrounding Arab countries. Until then I had no idea that anyone had charged Israel with aggression against its neighbors; nor did I understand how Israel could change its borders. At the same time, I was surprised, when for the first time I saw on a map the tiny size of Israel compared to its neighbors and especially when compared to the vastness of the United States. I was also pained at the way the Jordanian-controlled West Bank jutted out into Israeli territory, taking away so much of "our land."
I didn't question my belief in Zionism for almost a decade after my yeshiva training. After I graduated Brooklyn College in 1964, I joined the Peace Corps and served for two years as an English teacher in Iran. I came to know individual Iranians in ways that I knew my friends and family back home. No longer could I dismiss Iranians and others as faceless third world people irrelevant to me and my concerns.
My Peace Corps experience, however, did not immediately alter my Zionist views. During the 1967 war I recall my joy and exultation at what I considered a wonderful victory for Israel and for the Jewish people. I was spending an academic year at Reading University, not far from London, when, shortly after the war, in a blaze of enthusiasm and naiveté, which still mortifies me, I approached two Egyptian students and asked them if they didn't agree that the Israeli victory established the basis for a lasting peace. "Never," they responded with the greatest passion. "We will never give up. We will continue to fight."
A few weeks later I had my first political discussion about Israel with someone with strong anti- Zionist views. Lunching with a lecturer in the English Department, I was shocked to hear that she felt the Israeli victory was a disaster for Middle East peace. She went on to explain that in her view the very establishment of the Jewish state was profoundly unjust. I disagreed with her very strongly. I couldn't understand how a progressive person could attack the state of Israel on principle.
Nevertheless, the views of my British interlocutor may have set the stage for the cognitive dissonance I experienced following the 1967 war. During the 1969-70 "war of attrition" I was amazed and dismayed to read in the New York Times that Israeli planes were dropping bombs ten miles outside of Cairo! The Times printed a map with Cairo at the center of a bull's eye. The circles around the area showed how close to the city center the bombs were falling. As I read of the destruction of schools and factories and the loss of life I found my pro-Israeli views stretched to the limit.
Fear of Menachem Begin
As a committed Zionist, I put doubts about Israeli policy as far from the center of my consciousness as I could until the June 1977 elections in Israel approached. I remember asking a friend at the time: "Is it possible that Menachem Begin will actually become prime minister?"
Begin was the charismatic founder and leader of the right wing Likud party. I regarded him with the kind of fear and loathing that I felt for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. I was particularly distressed when, in the aftermath of Begin's election victory, the powerful American Jewish community didn't rise up in protest against the redoubling of Israeli settlement and land annexation policies. Menachem Begin helped me to understand, perhaps for the first time, that there was a government in Israel that was not interested in a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Arabs.
At the time I attributed Menachem Begin's belligerent attitude to his annexationist, greater Israel world view. So I was surprised to read an op-ed article in the Times which argued that even if the Labor party were to take back power in the upcoming 1981 elections, there would be no significant change in the basic policy of an indefinite military occupation of Palestinian territory. I began to understand that there was no fundamental difference between the Likud and the Labor parties because the policies of both were rooted in a huge injustice that was done to the Palestinians when Israel was established.
My developing understanding led me to explore the meaning of Zionism. I understood that proponents defined it as the national movement for a Jewish “homeland.” But that definition omitted consideration of the political and civil rights of the non- Jewish residents. I came to understand that the ideology that a Jewish state should replace the former Palestine – my own definition of Zionism -- meant in practice and also in theory, the expulsion of the bulk of the non-Jewish residents and the restriction to second class citizenship and military occupation for those who remained.
By 1982, like many concerned Israelis and Americans, I could see war coming again. The absence of a legitimate casus belli did not hinder the Begin government's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, from invading an essentially defenseless Lebanon that June.
The Palestinian Refugees
The media spotlight on the 1982 attack on Lebanon illuminated the terrible cost in lost and devastated Palestinian and Lebanese lives and helped me to focus on the effects of Israeli policy, in particular, on the Palestinian refugees. In my yeshivas, the Palestinian refugees were never humanized as people with legitimate rights to self-determination. As a result, I started out with the vaguest of notions of who they were and how they came to be where they were.
From time to time as I was growing up, I would notice media references to Palestinian doctors or diplomats or lawyers. I couldn't understand how they managed to become members of the professional classes. I had imagined them as poor and miserable denizens of awful refugee camps, out of whose ranks arose the terrorists who stubbornly refused to allow the people of Israel to live in peace.
Media reports that 20,000 Palestinian and Lebanese were killed and that many more thousands were made refugees by Israel's war against Lebanon led me to reconsider the original Palestinian refugees of 1948. I realized that some of the Palestinian refugees so recently uprooted in Lebanon must be the same people the Israeli military forced out of their homes and lands in Northern Palestine in the 1948 war -- -- termed the “War of Independence” by Israelis, and the “Nakba,” “the great catastrophe” by Palestinians.
That was the first time I recognized the phenomena of refugees expelled from their homes multiple times by the Israelis. I began to realize that just as there were many thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, there were hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria and the Gaza Strip who were forced out in 1948 and 1967. And, contrary to my previous notion that the Arab countries had stabbed the Palestinians in the back, I realized that neighboring Arab countries were forced to expend limited resources on the Palestinian refugees ever since Israel expelled them.
In 1987, when I read Simcha Flapan's The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, I was so confused that it took me a second reading to come to terms with what he wrote at the outset: that the 1948 war was as needless and unnecessary for the "security" of Israel as was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon of 1982. Flapan argues that the Arabs were unprepared for war and would have eagerly reached an accommodation with the new Jewish state if only the Israelis would have been willing to reach an agreement on territory and the Palestinian refugees.
I learned that, according to this so-called revisionist view, the 1948 war was not defensive, but an opportunistic, proactive war waged by the Israelis to gain more territory than the U.N. had allotted for the Jewish state and to "cleanse" the area of Palestinians. I learned that even before the May 15, 1948 declaration of the State of Israel, Jewish forces had succeeded in expelling some 300,000 Palestinians from their homes. Yet another 400,000 Palestinians remained in areas that the Jews coveted. Since the Jewish population of Palestine in 1948 was about 600,000, the Israeli leadership decided on war in order to rid the new state of most of its Arab population.
It took me twenty years, but I finally decided that my British lunch companion was right.
By demonizing Palestinians we were essentially blaming the victims of expulsion and land acquisition policies followed by Ben-Gurion's and every successive Israeli regime. Such policies demanded endless belligerence and war, and explain why Israel's leaders were determined to build a nuclear arsenal. The Israelis understood from the beginning that they required the military power to prevail against the supporters of those who wished to regain their territory.
I returned home from my class reunion convinced that I would find no understanding there for my defense of Palestinian rights. I understood that many of my former classmates championed the state of Israel, and blinded themselves to the crimes committed in its name, because they too were seared by the Holocaust that traumatized their parents' generation. But couldn't they see that by politically and financially supporting persecution and oppression, they were perpetuating that which they professed to abhor?
At my reunion I found no opportunity to talk politics. If there had been, I doubt that I would have found others ready to question with me why there should be an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine rather than a sharing of the land by all of its people. Perhaps this article will be my way of challenging my classmates and others to take a similar journey. I would invite them to join me on a path that substitutes friendship and peace for the arrogance of power and the yoke of oppression.