Zionist Dreams Sinking Into Despair


Tina Silverman walks past the boutiques and cafes on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and, for a moment, sees Israel as it was supposed to be. Mothers push their kids in strollers, grandparents nibble on ice cream, teens linger over cappuccino. Safe in their country.

But, she realizes, they're not safe.

Janet Aviad recaptures her life's work in a fleeting splash of activism each Saturday night when she joins a peace demonstration outside the Jerusalem residence of the Israeli prime minister. But crowds are small, and those who do show up, Aviad says, are depressed "to the point of despair."

Twenty-one months of debilitating warfare with the Palestinians, of suicide bombings and political stagnation and crippled economics, have had profound effects on Israeli society. Especially for Israelis such as Silverman and Aviad, who once believed peace and a normal relationship with the Palestinians to be possible, fundamental questions about the future and evolving character of the Jewish state wrench the gut and eat at the soul.

They came to Israel from America many years ago to further the Zionist cause, the building of a Jewish state that would be tolerant, secure and democratic. Instead, they see today a scared, hardened nation awash in hatreds, with space for dissent shrinking and many people, especially among younger generations, fleeing instead of arriving--in direct contradiction to the spirit of Zionism.

Thirty-five years after what Israelis saw as a glorious victory in the Middle East War, and as Israel has turned the clock back on the Oslo peace accords and reoccupied the West Bank, many now feel doomed to a life of eternal conflict. They feel trapped by the collapse of even a semblance of a peace process, the seemingly unabated rise in Palestinian attacks and fury, and the lack of leadership--anywhere--to change things.

For Janet Aviad, one of the founders of the activist group Peace Now, the hopes she had for a democratic and tranquil Israel are evaporating. And Tina Silverman, a magazine art director, has all but given up on the Zionist dream that brought her to Israel nearly two decades ago. The two women encapsulate the palpable sense of despondency that permeates Israel today.


Aviad, a petite woman of 59, was sitting in her living room the other day in Jerusalem's tony German Colony neighborhood with her 32-year-old son, Mikie. He had just finished another tour of military reserve duty that included, among other tasks, occupying the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Aviad and her son's politics once meshed absolutely. He occasionally accompanied her to peace rallies. But he is bitter now, any tolerance he once felt toward his Palestinian neighbors wiped out by the past months of violence.

The mother recoils at some of her son's harsher comments. But she also finds herself repeatedly conceding points to him.

"We lied to ourselves for years," Mikie Aviad said. The left and much of Israel's so-called peace camp ignored extremism on the Palestinian side, the pace at which Palestinians were amassing guns and the continued anti-Jewish rhetoric, he said.

His mother essentially agrees. Many in the Israeli left felt betrayed when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat walked away from peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, then supported an armed uprising against Israeli occupation. Like those on the right, many leftists no longer trust Arafat--and wonder how they could have been so wrong.

"We all blinded ourselves," she said. "All of us are sobered up now."

Force is the answer, Mikie says. He believes what he did in Bethlehem was necessary and right. The army invaded Bethlehem, and most of the rest of the West Bank, as part of a five-week offensive this year with the stated aim of wiping out terrorism.

"We went in a house, took the family, put them downstairs and slept in the house two days," Mikie recalled. "I have no problem with it. I have no problem using them to protect myself. That's exactly what we did. We didn't kick them out--we [kept] them there so no one would blow us up. I have no problem with it whatsoever.

"I don't want to use Palestinian civilians as targets, but if some get hurt while we're doing what we're doing, then that's how it has to be," he said.

His attitude has been shaped by the suicide bombings, by the fear and anger that have gripped the nation. More than 2,000 people, Palestinians and Israelis, have been killed since September 2000, and in recent months the number of Israeli dead in certain periods has outpaced the number of Palestinian dead.

"I just feel they are a bunch of barbarians," Mikie Aviad said, adding that his preferred solution is to build a fence between the two peoples--an idea fast becoming reality. "I don't want Arab friends.... I don't want to see Arabs, I admit it."

It must hurt Janet Aviad, a longtime champion of coexistence who to this day continues to attempt meetings with Palestinians, to hear her son say such things. She grimaced ever so slightly and stared at the tiled floor of her meticulously refurbished 1930s home.

"I'm a little sorry about it," she said. "I know he's angry--at the use of terror, the violence, the betrayal. I'm angry, but I don't have the same desire not to see. But many, many people have given up on the idea of peace right now.

"It's not 'peace now,' it's 'border now.' Stop the occupation, get out, build a fence, they're there, we're here. Then, after a while, when the [violence] is forgotten and the graves are cold, then we might go back to a certain kind of normalization."


Tina Silverman goes to work in Jerusalem three days a week but vastly prefers Tel Aviv. The coastal city, despite suffering its share of suicide bombings and other attacks, maintains more of a semblance of normality than does Jerusalem. It is still a party town, with restaurants and cafes that endure in spite of it all.

She and her husband, Simmy Reguer, also endure in spite of it all.

"I don't think a day has gone by that I haven't cried about it," she said. "You can't help it.

"You go to a funeral of somebody [killed in a terror bombing], and they're burying a leg. You don't just brush that aside. Oh, everybody goes on with their lives.... But it's tough. You really go up and down, up and down. Every single time."

Silverman and Reguer, a television sports announcer, once considered themselves to be leftists. But both have had a change of heart, his more drastic than hers.

"I didn't used to believe we should go and blow people out. Now I believe we should go in and blow people out. That's a very big difference," said Reguer, a gregarious man of 56. "We're getting bombed--we should bomb them. Plain and simple. No turning the other cheek. Those days are over."

Silverman, 52, doesn't like to hear it put quite that way. But she too says the brutal reality has hardened the choices.

"We came to Israel to build a state so that the word 'victim' wouldn't be part of our vocabulary. It strikes at a very deep chord," she said. "Unfortunately, the primal response is not very pretty. It means going into Jenin. It means checkpoints. It means all these things that are not very pretty."

Silverman and Reguer live in a third-floor apartment among small buildings on one of Tel Aviv's sunny side streets. For both, this is their second marriage. Their comfortable home is peppered with family photos and original art; in one corner of the living room is a huge television, testament to Reguer's work as a broadcaster. He also runs a sports camp for children, but it was hard to get people to sign up this year.

The Aviads, Silverman and Reguer--all American-born Israelis--support, in varying degrees, their army's actions. They worry not about Israel's survival but about the quality of the state that is developing. They have come to realize that their Zionist vision will not be realized, at least not in the way they conceived. Expectations are being lowered, redefined.

By circumstance more than by design, all but one of Silverman and Reguer's four children have chosen to live in a country other than Israel. In some respects, many Israeli children have outgrown a small country hemmed in by war and have left, bucking a long trend of immigration to the Jewish state.

"The days of when Israeli kids stayed in Israel are" over, Silverman said. Her older daughter is working in Spain; her younger, Israeli-born daughter has stayed in Tel Aviv. Reguer's two sons are on the U.S. East Coast, one studying filmmaking and the other working in a restaurant.

"We used to think of yeridah, of leaving Israel, as something that was really a social no-no. You were ashamed of it," she said. "Now everyone talks about their kids, 'This one's in London, this one's there,' and no one's embarrassed anymore. We're grateful that they're doing well economically, we know they can't make it here. It's impossible for these children to support themselves here. We're glad that they're safe, we're glad that they're enjoying their lives, and we're not ashamed."

Not ashamed, but not delighted either. The desertion of younger generations speaks to the failure of Zionism, Silverman said.

"For Zionists like myself, it's extremely painful," she said. "It means what I thought was going to be a rebirth of not only Jewish culture but Israeli culture is now being disseminated throughout the world, and none of it is staying here because we cannot give our kids what we thought we could give them. It's been beaten away by war. It's a country that's been at war for 53 years."

Silverman and Reguer came to Israel in different years, but in times of promise and change. She became an Israeli citizen in 1984 after making many visits to the country, milking cows on a kibbutz and filling in for young farmers who fought the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

He arrived 35 years ago at one of the country's most critical junctures, four months after Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. Those were heady days of personal and collective empowerment, when Israel was realizing the extent of its military self-reliance.

It would also be the start of decades of occupation, something Silverman and Reguer see as a historic mistake.

Today, Silverman struggles emotionally with whether to stay, though she can't imagine leaving. Reguer is firm about remaining against all odds and in the face of the violence. That is his Zionist duty, he said, proof that Zionism has not failed.

"If Zionism would have failed, we'd be gone already," he said. "Take a look at the ugly picture of what's going on here, of people walking into supermarkets and blowing themselves up. If you weren't a true Zionist, you'd pack your things and get on a plane and be gone."

Silverman countered, "I think Israel is kind of like New York in a way, that old feeling where you think that anything is possible. I used to get that feeling here. I don't get that feeling here anymore. That's why I think Zionism has failed."

Janet and Mikie Aviad think that Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has corrupted the nation. Zionism might not have failed, they said, but it is in trouble.

"Very basic questions have to be re-answered, things that we thought were very obvious about the nature of our society and the Jewish people," Mikie Aviad said. "Everything has been shaken up here to the point where we have to ask everything."

Why, he asks, do polls show support for undemocratic measures such as limiting the civil rights of Arab citizens of Israel and even the expulsion of Arabs? Why are extremists, the right, a minority of Jewish settlers and the ultra-Orthodox so often allowed to shape and propel the national agenda?

Janet Aviad believes that the goal of Zionism, to establish a Jewish state, succeeded beautifully. It is the history since 1967, she said, that has tainted Zionism and made its existing form something other than what she envisioned. Whether the liberal, democratic Zionism she favors will still shape Israeli society is, she said, an open question.

"This is an earthquake in Israel, and a lot of buildings have collapsed," she said. "They have to be, they can be, rebuilt. I think."


Mikie, who came to Israel with his mother when he was 3, now has his own son, 18 months. He contemplates leaving. And he is so worried about the kinds of things being taught in Israeli schools right now that he only half-jokingly said he is considering sending his child to a local Catholic school.

The state of affairs was driven home to him by a care package that he and his troops received from Israeli sixth-graders. In addition to the cookies and fruit, it contained a neatly lettered sign, "Death to the Arabs." He thinks that the teacher probably wrote it because the handwriting was so clear.

"I think most people my age ... want what everyone else our age wants. They want to be able to raise their children in a good way, they want to have enough money to live well and they want to have a good, interesting job," he said. "None of these things are available in Israel, and they don't seem that they're going to be available in the near future."

For the Aviads, and for Silverman and Reguer, this is an about-face in expectations that has taken place in just the last two years.

"If you take it as a whole, the weight of it leaves no hope. It represents no exit," Janet Aviad said.

"What kills me," Reguer said, "even though this is selfish what I'm saying, these are the years that stuff should be coming back. I've worked 35, 40 years."

"You fight depression [that comes from] fear and death, but you also fight the depression that you have to get used to it. And that you have to get used to it for the rest of your life because this is the way we are going to live our lives," Silverman said.

"I actually do think that's true. Maybe my grandchildren will be able to live in a society that's peaceful. But I really do, unfortunately, think that this is going to be it for the next 100 years."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World