Today, we heard a very different version of the history of Israel. The same story that Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) is reverently and joyfully described by Israelis as the “Aliyah” (homecoming). As wave after wave of Jewish immigrants left the horrors of World War II behind, they understood their journeys to the new homeland of Israel as the end of 2,000 years of exile.
Yotem Goren, a diplomat who currently serves as the First Secretary of the Permanent Mission for Israel to the United Nations, was born in Jerusalem. While he has spent much of his life in the United States, Goren clearly sees the world through Israeli eyes. As he addresses our class, he speaks with pride and confidence about Israel’s history of democracy, resilience, entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. It is, in many respects, a story of strength. But lurking just below the surface is a very different narrative. Israel describes itself as a small nation — one that can be toured by helicopter, border to border, in just 90 minutes. Its citizens are surrounded by nations who want them gone, who refuse to even acknowledge their right to exist. This perception pervades every statement, every response, every hope. Even here at the United Nations, within the halls of the tribunal that first gave them legitimacy, Israel often believes that it stands alone against a hostile world.
Israelis are acutely aware of the criticisms that are often pressed against them: questions about illegal settlements, about alleged human rights violations, about walls that encroach and policies that discriminate. But before they answer these questions, they press in return the one that hangs over their heads like a sword about to fall: “why can’t the countries of the world agree that we have a right to exist?”
In some ways, we Americans are set apart from the rest of the world. Without a doubt, and with good reason, Israelis consider us to be their most trusted and valuable ally. But even with us there is a bit of a distance or hesitancy — one that seems to come with always having to wonder where the next threat or challenge is hiding. They love us, but they are also leery of us. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department negotiator and a long term veteran of the peace process, paraphrases the message that Israel often sends to the United States as going something like this: “we value your support and friendship, we really do… but don’t #@!$ with us.”
As Gorem thanked our class and returned to his diplomatic duties, I thought about the difficulty of his political reality — the place of Israel in the world community. It must be very lonely, I thought, to feel so small in a world that seems so hostile — to wonder if even your closest friends will stand beside you when push really comes to shove.
So much of what is happening in Palestine, it seems to me, is rooted in this psychological and emotional question: who will stand with me?