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My Self-imposed Exile From Israel

I am not always welcome in Jewish circles here in Chicago.

A handful of people won’t talk to me; some won’t even look at my children. I was told by one Jewish communal official that I’ve supplied weapons to the enemy, and a prominent member of my community accused me, in a letter sent to dozens of people, of stabbing Israel in the back. I’ve been whispered about and threatened.

I’ve also gotten, truthfully, some lovely calls and letters. I’ve been asked to head committees and to speak at universities, and some of the whispers were whispers of support.

Why? Because I published a few things in the Chicago Tribune. In one commentary I insisted patriotism cannot be equated with acceptance of the occupation; in another I discussed the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli forces.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people called this betrayal. I wasn’t surprised, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t painful.

Because the truth is that I’ve never really loved any place but Israel. I’m fond of the Midwestern towns in which I grew up and now live, and I’ve seen spectacular cities around the world, but Israel is my home. I ache when I’m away. I miss the air.

Moreover, my love comes not from ideology or religious sentiment, but from my life. Born an American Protestant, I went in 1984 for one semester of college; four years later, I graduated from Tel Aviv University. Conversion and aliya soon followed. I became fluent in Hebrew, battled bureaucracy and heat, nanny-ed, waitressed, wrote about politics and popular music, volunteered during elections, married a Sabra, sent him to the army again and again, and never considered turning back.

Indeed, Israel is the only place where I know how to be a Jew. I don’t know how to pray in English or how to do American Hanukkah — “normal” Judaism for me means silence on Yom Kippur, and Torah imagery in pop songs. I’m an Israeli Jew, and Israelis never treat me as anything but.

Our plan was always to go back. We had no desire to raise children anywhere else. With the backlash to my commentaries in Chicago, our return began to feel like the ultimate comeback to anyone accusing me of perfidy.

“Who are you?” I would think. “My son is going to the army when he’s 18 — yours is going to Brandeis.”

Yet here I sit. As the intifada and Israel’s response dragged on, my husband, a Jerusalemite steeped in the Zionist ethos, and I realized we couldn’t do it. I told someone it was like a hurricane blowing through your house: Still home, but it was no longer habitable.

Or, more to the point, no longer good for children. We’d come to understand that if we were childless, we would go back and join the fight, do what we honestly know to be the right thing.

But we are not childless, and we cannot bring our children to a place where the bottomless desperation of 3.7 million people is less important than my personal sense of security. Where the ghastly, repellent killing of nearly 1,000 Israelis since September 2000 serves to excuse our killing of more than 3,000 Palestinians, more than 150 aged 12 and under.

We cannot bring our children to Israel knowing that the World Bank says about half of Palestinians live in poverty, more than 600,000 unable to afford their basic survival needs. That after four years of counter-intifada action, Newsweek can describe Palestinian cities as “ravaged.” Meanwhile, our economy grew 4.2% last year, according to the BBC. As former Knesset member Uri Savir wrote, “We may have been the first conquerors in history who felt ourselves to be conquered.”

I can’t even muster optimism for the Gaza withdrawal. I’m deeply anxious that Prime Minister Sharon’s border will make Gaza an even more fiercely guarded cage for its residents.

I’m filled with rage, and a crushing sense of hopelessness. And until the winds change, until there is an understanding that Israeli lives are brutally targeted because Palestinian lives are brutally devalued, I refuse to move my children there. I won’t send them to schools with budgets made tiny by occupation economics, or inundate them with the fused messages of militarism and victimhood. I cannot ask them to carry that burden on their slim shoulders. I’m shredded with ambivalence, but for now, for them, I will shoulder that ambivalence here.

So I stay in self-imposed exile, knowing I might never live in Israel again. Knowing that many will condemn me, deny the legitimacy of my passion. All I can do is fight, hoping someday I will be able to bring my family home, to a country predicated on justice. I pray my children will live to see it. I fear that I will not.

Emily Hauser is an Illinois-based freelance writer who reported from the Middle East for the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News and other American newspapers.

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