Through a Glass Darkly- APN Commentary by Naomi Paiss (June 3, 2024)

Naomi Paiss is serving as Interim Communications Director for APN.  She retired in 2022 after more than 40 years running  public affairs  and communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the New Israel Fund, the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence,  the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and other organizations.

Based in both DC and Jerusalem, Naomi rejoined the working world to help APN through a period of transition and to participate in the serious issues now confronting both Israel and the U.S.  

When I married my Israeli husband almost seven years ago, we agreed that, once retired, we would split our time between his Jerusalem and my Washington, DC apartments. This made sense - we both have children from our previous marriages in Israel and the US. We’re both comfortable in each other’s country –  I had worked for the New Israel Fund for many years and he had lived in the U.S. as a diplomat’s spouse. We retired in 2022 and had no-one to report to.

Of course, as anyone in a “mature” marriage knows, life throws curveballs. Now I have two small grandchildren whom I don’t like leaving for more than a couple of months. It’s hot as hell in both places in the summer. And what do we do about the cat?

But nothing comes close to the cognitive dissonance of living in the U.S. and Israel now.

We were here in Jerusalem on October 7, 2023. We were awakened by warning sirens and a few loud thuds. With no warning of an imminent escalation with Hamas, we were as surprised and shocked as everyone else here, especially once the terrible dimensions of the Hamas rampage became clear. But where was the army? Where were the police? Why wasn’t the government saying anything official? Social media became clogged with tidbits of information and horror stories. Having seen the multiple cycles of violence in Gaza since 2008, we feared the worst possible Israeli response.

The disbelief and trauma in Israel could not be overstated. The only comparison I had was 9/11, when I saw the smoke from the Pentagon from my DC office window. But for Israelis who, no matter what their political affiliations and personal beliefs, shared the unconscious assumption that civilians here are safe, give or take some random terror attacks – this seemed to be the psychological shock of a lifetime. Submerged in sorrow and anger, it seemed that most Israelis we knew, even some lifelong leftists from the peace and human rights movements, instinctively believed that Hamas must now be eradicated. Initially and with much uncertainty, knowing that that goal was unlikely but unable to find another course of action, so did we.

Emerging from that tribal trauma, returning to America a few weeks later was astonishing. Family members and friends already spoke of imminent genocide by Israel against Gaza, or at the very least of ethnic cleansing and war crimes against the millions of Palestinians locked up in Gaza. Calls for a ceasefire actually preceded the armed phase of the conflict. The hostages were a footnote, a grudging acknowledgment that a few civilian Israelis were in harm’s way. Former colleagues and allies of mine from other progressive movements posted on social media in ways that made me hit the unfollow button. My little cadre of former colleagues from NIF, and others I knew who identify as progressive Zionists, were as sad, as baffled, as torn and confused as I was.

Within a month, our DC neighborhood, proudly diverse and chaotic, had a Free Palestine sticker on every single street-lamp and traffic sign. Our favorite local restaurant has a social-justice-y bookstore; every book on display in the window now took the maximalist Palestinian position.

Time went on, our thinking evolved. The war, without any political endgame, was accomplishing little militarily and squandering whatever goodwill Israel had in the world- and doing absolutely nothing to safeguard the lives of the hostages. The arrogant actions of the Netanyahu government, the bragging about their successful thwarting of peace negotiations, the cynical support for Hamas as a way to weaken the Palestinian Authority, the treatment of the hostage families, the heightened settler violence in the West Bank, the utter disrespect for President Biden and the political capital he put on the line….all of this was intolerable. But nothing came close to the photos and videos from Gaza, a man-made hell for which Israel, Israelis and we Jews who have given Israel political cover are collectively responsible.

And now we are back here, in Israel, where the TV news the day of the Rafah incineration led with three other stories, including the deaths of IDF soldiers. Back here where one of my most respected and principled friends, a diehard leftist who served the human rights cause for many years, tells us she wants to raise her daughter elsewhere because she no longer believes Israel has any leaders worthy of the name and she no longer trusts the army. That made me realize that trust in the IDF, in its competence and its morality, had been one of the few remaining bonds in this fractured society.

Last week, my friend and colleague, Dahlia Scheindlin, wrote for APN about the weekly demonstrations here. Israelis once again gather and protest Netanyahu and demand the return of the hostages whose photos are on every fence. But they are not protesting for an end to the war. Those that do are a small minority and they are vilified. It is not just the media and its 24/7 (Israeli) trauma coverage; it is not just the rockets that still come down from Hamas and Hezbollah or the vacant towns and kibbutzim near Gaza and Lebanon; it is not just what is left of what once was one of the world’s most cohesive (if insular) societies. Support for this war originates in a fearful, genuine and yes, vengeful scream of despair from a country whose legitimacy has been questioned since the day it was founded. It cannot be wished away.

My husband and I are exhausted explaining Israel to Americans and America to Israelis. No, those campus protesters are not all anti-semites. No, we are not looking over our shoulders at antisemitism ourselves: we might get carjacked like anyone else in DC but not because we are Jewish. No, the State of Israel doesn’t have to exist in order to save Jews worldwide from the next round of gas chambers.

No, all Israelis do not think all Palestinians are sub-human. No, the people here who look to be enjoying their lives in cafes and parks are not blithely ignoring the horror 50 or 100 miles away, they are very aware of it. On a two-day break in a lovely hotel on the Carmel, I eavesdropped on different groups of women talking somberly about hostage families they knew and brothers serving in the reserves and yes, the children in Gaza. Cognitive dissonance actually doesn’t begin to describe life here, now. As yet another friend said, the normality is only a millimeter deep.

Everyone with a foot in both countries knows what I’m describing. Maybe you’ve also lost friends or angered family members or remembered when you were the young protester on the other side of the generation gap. Maybe you’ve found a way to help. Me? I came out of retirement temporarily when APN’s beloved Communications Director, Ori Nir, retired in March, to provide some fill-in help for a while. Working with this small group of people straddling the divide between loving Israel and wanting to shove it, hard, towards a solution to this never-ending conflict – that helps.

But as a communications expert with more than 40 years experience, I’m tired of trying to communicate in both of the countries we call home. I’m tired of trying to express what is beyond theory and ideology, trying to keep personal relationships from fraying and tearing, trying to do something useful, trying to make sense of this terrible moment. The privilege of sitting and contemplating while others fight and starve and die never leaves me.

My own Labor Zionist parents, z’’l, would likely still be contributing to AIPAC and singing HaTikvah. For us, the transitional generation between the Israel that was promised and the Israel that is, there are no easy paths. And I’m not at all sure that our children and grandchildren will look back at this history, this experiment, this homeland we once dreamt of, and forgive us our terrible mistakes.