I was at the local Starbucks the other day. A mother was there with three kids. While she was ordering and paying, her youngest child picked up a sandwich. The mother’s hands were full, and she didn’t notice until she had finished paying and was walking away. She took the sandwich, smiled when she saw the tooth marks on the plastic, and turned to go to back to the cashier to pay for it. She didn’t go to the end of the long line, of course. She had just paid.
I smiled at her, just as the cashier did, but then I heard someone say, “pushy Israeli.”
My head whipped around to see who had said that loud and uncalled for comment. I immediately found who had made the comment. She was not trying to hide her face or her feelings. Rather, she and her two girlfriends seemed proud of the comment. It was as if they were in the know.
These three women seemed familiar to me, though they were a few years younger than me, I think. I listened for a moment, trapped in line with them as they bantered, commiserating, it seemed, about pushy Israelis. They were Jewish. I think one of my brothers went to high school with them. It’s hard to know for sure.
I chatted with the Israeli woman for a while. She never let on that she heard the comment, but she had. It was loud and clear, and this woman’s English was excellent. She was in Canada with her Canadian husband for his father’s funeral. They were staying for another week so her husband could sit shivah and so they could all spend a short while with his family at this sad time.
Her oldest son was 10, and before she knew it he would be in the army and a few years after his sister would follow suit and then the baby, of course.
I thought about this incident all day. I thought about this woman who may not be able to come to Canada when her mother-in-law dies, or when her Canadian nieces and nephews celebrate their bar and bat Mitzvahs. While a child is in the army, one parent always remains in Israel.
I also thought about what happened to me a few years ago when my daughter went to Israel in the summer. She called from time to time, and each time she was more in love with the country than the time before. She loved the culture and the food and the atmosphere and the people. She loved the soldiers. Each time she called me, I felt a cold sense of fear creeping deeper and deeper into my very being.
She texted me when she was on the runway before the plane took off to come home. I saw the text and felt a huge rush of air fill my lungs. For the first time in weeks, my chest expanded and I could breathe again. Israel had not claimed my first-born.
So what makes me any different from my peers at Starbucks? Perhaps nothing much. Except that if that woman had been pushy, maybe the difference is that I wouldn’t have judged her for it. Maybe living in a country where you are afraid to leave its borders while your child is in the army because of what may happen to your child makes you a bit pushier? But even then, I would say that’s strength rather than pushiness.
When I got home from Starbucks, I told my youngest son what had happened. He is 15 and commented that at least this was not an example of antisemitism. His belief was clear. One could not be antisemitic and also be Jewish. We debated this for a while. But in any event I agreed that this was not an example of antisemitism. Rather, it was an example of North-American Jewish women perpetuating a stereotype that they felt free to express because they were Jewish.
They, just like all of us, went to Hebrew school where we all learned about Israel and how important it is for the Jews to have a Jewish state. When I grew up Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was my hero. They, just like all of us, conclude their Passover seders by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But they don’t mean it any more than I do. Well, except for a visit, from time to time – “when it’s safe.”
It is easy for us to donate money to Israel, to sign petitions when a store boycotts Israeli products, and even to go out of our way to buy Israeli products we don’t need as a sign of solidarity. It is easy to walk for Israel and speak up for Israel no matter what our political views are. It is easy to be proud to be Jewish in Canada and easier still to decry antisemitism whenever anyone who is not Jewish criticizes Israel.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so easy for us Jews to criticize those who live there and protect Israel. So what makes me any better? I’d like to think that at least I feel compassion and respect for the mothers of Israeli children rather than think, simply by being Jewish, that I have the right to loudly criticize them and pretend they haven’t heard me.
The stark truth is that no matter what we North American Jews do for Israel, nothing even comes close to what Israeli parents do for Israel. What we give can be easily quantified, but what they give – well, it’s beyond measure.
Tammy Barrett lives in Toronto.