The Green Line Bus Story

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I’ve heard my mother’s story about the Green Line bus trip more times than I can count. It’s the story I tell when people ask me how my parents feel about my anti-occupation work. I could probably tell it word for word. Still, I called her up and asked her to tell me again, like so many childhood stories. I had other questions, yes—about her religious upbringing, about my grandparents’ political beliefs—but I really wanted the Green Line bus story.

My mom grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the sort of family wherein her parents took her to anti-redlining marches and Ban the Bomb rallies, and great-grandfather read one issue of the Jewish Daily Forward, pronounced it “right-wing socialist trash,” and then resumed reading the Freiheit. When I asked her about her first memories of Israel/Palestine, she exclaimed, “Oh, the little blue box! The little blue box! The JNF box, to plant forests. Everybody had a little blue and white metal box, and you put money in the pushke…I think we had one my whole life.”  Although her parents probably wouldn’t have used the word “miracle,” she still remembers “the idea that it was this oasis, and a place where Jews lived and were turning it into this beautiful place.”

I asked what, if anything, she remembers hearing about Palestinians. I’m not proud to admit it, but I think a part of me wanted to hear a history of explicit bigotry that might provide another target for nearly fifty years of occupation. Her experiences, however, were not so different from my own: less extreme, violent hate speech, and more of a general whitewashing of history. “I don’t think anybody ever acted as if there hadn’t been other people there,” my mom told me. “I think we were taught what a lot of people were taught, that they left of their own accord.” To be sure, my grandparents did make the occasional comments about how they didn’t believe Arabs (Palestinians and otherwise) to be trustworthy[1]. However, when my mother stopped attending Beitar youth group meetings after the staff taught military marching drills, her parents were duly horrified and supported her decision not to return.

And finally, after recalling mostly-fond memories of the small, pluralistic Jewish community that formed the backdrop of her Wisconsin childhood, my mother retold me the Green Line bus story. She was sixteen, on a community-sponsored, multi-week teen tour of Israel. As she remembers it, one day,

“We were driving along the green line, and on one side of us were the refugee camps, and on the other side of us was Israel. And I was listening to [the Beitar-affiliated kids] talk about ‘The Arabs,’ you know, in caps, and thinking about what my parents had said about Arabs as not being trustworthy—in terms of Israel, not in terms of anything else, it’s not like they didn’t patronize Arab owned businesses in Milwaukee, they did—but I was on this bus, and it suddenly dawned on me that there was a sort of critical hypocrisy between the way my parents had taught me to treat everybody else, and the way they talked about the people living in the countries around Israel. It was sort of a shock.”

 I waited to hear about how she returned home to Milwaukee and argued about Israel and Palestine over family dinners. I waited for her to tell me about walking into synagogue and feeling deeply disgusted about what her community tacitly supported. But that narrative is mine, not hers.

My mother stayed attached. It felt impossible for her to do otherwise. “It was very easy to [boycott] South Africa. But it’s not as easy to say, I don’t care what happens [in Israel,] because I do,” she told me. “It’s not just a question of them doing things in my name. Those people are, to some extent, us, and we’re part of the same community, in a lot of ways. What they do reflects on us and what we do reflects on them. We’re sort of inextricably tied.”

Her eventual disenchantment was more gradual. She was particularly disturbed by the growth and entrenchment of the settler movement, saying,

“It’s clear it’s not temporary, and then it’s clear that you’re creating two classes of people. Before, as awful as the [refugee] camps were, there was a sense that, ‘this isn’t Israel. This is this occupied territory, and different rules apply.’ But once you start letting your own people settle there, then it really is Israel, and then it’s really wrong for the other people living there not to have the same rights.”

After debating the links between the weakening of Israeli secularism and the strengthening of the Occupation, we change topics and talk about my own anti-occupation work. She’s proud of me, she says, for “taking [my] confusion about the place, and rather than walking away, which is what [she] did, that you examined it and went back to try to sort it out for yourself.” She tells me I’ve never shied away from hard things. I can’t believe she thinks she’s walked away. Even if Israel was rarely a topic of conversation in my house, my mom is the woman who held firm when, at age thirteen, I screamed and cried like a toddler because she and my dad made me miss one ballet class a week to go to Hebrew school. She’s the woman who practiced the impressive amount of Hebrew words she remembered with the Israeli kids in my American public elementary school. And she’s the woman who, with my dad, went to Israel with my brother and I when we were eleven and fifteen, respectively.

Eight years after that trip, only now do I know that there were many heated debates between my parents about whether or not we would even take this trip. Only now do I know that, on the Jewish-only highway that took us to the nature preserves at Ein Gedi, my parents explained to us that we, who came from another country, could drive on this road, while people who were born just a few miles away could not. Only now do I know that we almost didn’t drive on that highway at all, and only relented because taking an alternate route that didn’t cross the Green Line would have added several hours to the trip.

Last year, on the day that four children playing on a Gazan beach were killed by an Israeli bomb, I texted my mom. “I want to apologize to your sixteen-year-old liberal Zionist self,” I told her. “You can’t,” she responded. “She’s too busy beating me up. She doesn’t know how we let this happen.” I asked her, at the end of this conversation, if she could go back in time, what she would say to her teenage self, that day on the bus? “I’m glad,” she responded, “that my sixteen year old self didn’t know how much worse it was going to get.”

[1] A few weeks before my Zaide, my mom’s dad, died, we were talking about my plans to study abroad in Tel Aviv that fall, and I mentioned something about the settlements. He let out a long, heavy sigh, and asked, “What ever happened to the Israel that I used to love?” Suffice it to say, my grandparents’ beliefs evolved.

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