In 2007, in a chance conversation with her mother, a kibbutznik, Jasmine Donahaye stumbled upon the collusion of her family in the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. She set out to learn the story of what happened, and discovered an earlier and rarely discussed piece of history during the British Mandate in Palestine. Her discoveries challenged everything she thought she knew about the country and her family, and transformed her understanding of the place, and of herself. Losing Israel is a moving and honest account which spans travel writing, nature writing and memoir. Through the author's personal situation it explores the powerful and competing attachments that people feel about their country and its history, by attempting to understand and reconcile her conflicted attachments, rooted in her family story - and in a love of Israel's birds. A life-long bird watcher, Donahaye uses birds in Israel and her home in Wales to provide an unexpected and intriguing linking trope across the various themes of the book.Losing Israel stands apart from other titles about the Israel/Palestine situation with its focus on the British Mandate period, Palestine's history in the 1930s, and the kibbutz movement. Her writing is frank and often immediate: the locations in Israel and Wales are sensually alive, and the author's physical exertions felt by the reader. Her childhood memories of her mother's kibbutz, and her own experiences in Israel and Wales as an adult also bring originality to her writing. Losing Israel works on many levels - family relationships, the nature of patriotism and nationalism, cultural dislocation, the story of the Jewish diaspora and Israel, how history changes from one generation to the next, the histories of the dispossessed and the oppressed. In combining history, birdwatching, and her personal story Donahaye has written an accessible and human book about an habitual controversial conflict.
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About the Author
Jasmine Donahaye worked in the publishing sector before joining the English Department at Swansea University, where she is now a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. Her previous books include a biography of Welsh-Jewish author Lily Tobias, The Greatest Need; a monograph, Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine; and two poetry collections - Self-Portrait as Ruth and Misappropriations.
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By Jasmine Donahaye
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Jasmine Donahaye
All rights reserved.
It is the year of clogs and flared skirts, of shiny striped shirts with big collars, the year the PLO infiltrates by boat on the coast north of Tel Aviv and takes a bus-load of passengers hostage. It is spring, 1978 and I am ten years old. Security at El Al Airlines is high. I know the names Abu Nidal and Abu Jihad and Leila Khaled – Leila Khaled, that woman who is somehow not really a woman, but a terrorist.
Israel is an impression of barbed wire and rusting yellow warning signs on the beaches, the scent of orange blossom and the stink of sewage, hot nights and ruins – and a huge sprawling network of strangers who are relatives. It is my mother's first return home after fifteen years of self-imposed exile, and it opens in me a wound I can never heal – a longing to come home to a place that can't be home.
Now whenever I return, it is the long straight road through the valley to the kibbutz that catches at me – after Afula, that dusty way-station; after the last turnings, where it straightens out into the old Roman road that runs through the Jezreel Valley or the Plain of Esdraelon or Marj Ibn Amer, depending on your political orientation, or language, or biblical inclination. 'The Ruler Road' my mother called it, that first time we went back in 1978. The mass of Mount Gilboa rises on your right, and far off in the distance there's a shimmering above the road where the border lies, some twenty kilometres away. Beyond it rise the Jordanian mountains, the mountains of Gilad or Gilead, after which my grand-father Yair named himself and my family – Hagiladi, a man of that place. On either side of the road stretch the fishponds, where you can see white-fronted blue and chestnut Smyrna kingfishers, and pied kingfishers and black-winged stilts; and then, looming up under Gilboa, the complex of the prison moves into sight, watchtowers and barbed wire topping the long external wall, which runs alongside the dusty road. A short distance beyond the prison a trilingual green metal sign points out the left turning to the kibbutz.
Through every return, the kibbutz lies like a magnet at the centre, exerting a force that pulls each journey into a curve inward to its core. Even now, after I have learned its other story, it exerts its pull. This is where my mother is from, and so I have always felt that this is in some way where I am from, too. No matter what I learn about its history, what I feel about its government's acts, its citizens' electoral choices, what I think about its political foundations and exclusions, Israel is inextricably caught up with my mother – my inaccessible, elusive mother, who left her community and her country, but inwardly never left, who carried her home all the years of my childhood not in a book, as some anti-Zionists will say the 'true' Jew does, but in the locked chamber of her heart.
My mother was born in Palestine in 1941, in the hospital in Afula, the dusty town on the road to Beit She'an, or, in Arabic, Beisan – it was, in 1941, an Arab town. The British Mandate still had seven years to run before the last dignitaries and soldiers and diplomats would board the final ship from Haifa and leave the Arabs and Jews of Palestine to fight it out by themselves. Kibbutz Beit Hashita, the communist settlement in which she grew up, was established in 1935, halfway between Afula and Beit She'an. Her parents were friends; they had worked as contracted labourers together at the salt works, because there was not enough work yet on the kibbutz; they had married, and within a year had separated, while my grandmother, Rahel, was still pregnant with my mother. Later, Rahel had become involved with a married man, and had been compelled to leave the kibbutz, so that my mother, growing up in the small, closed, starkly conformist community, was always part outsider. Later, when her mother used to come back to visit, it made her feel like one of the non-member children who lived there as a type of boarder.
My mother, like all kibbutz children at the time, was brought up in the children's house. The children would spend a short time each afternoon with their parents, but otherwise they lived under the care of the metapelet, the children's nurse. The communal raising of children relieved women of the burden of parenthood and enabled them to take part in kibbutz life as equal members, with equal status – or that was the belief. In the Freudian Marxist thinking of the early kibbutz movement, being kept away from close proximity to their parents' neurotic inclinations meant that children would be relieved of the bourgeois burden of an Oedipus complex. In a hardline kibbutz, where the ideology was most exact and absolute, a parent might make a point of greeting the other children before their own when they met them walking along a path, so that there could be no question of preferential treatment. Beit Hashita was a hardline kibbutz.
My mother left Israel with my father in 1963, when she was twenty-two, and she did not return from England for fifteen years. By the time she went back to visit, the Six Day War was more than a decade in the past; less distantly, the Yom Kippur War had almost been lost. She returned to a transformed country, a country massively expanded, with West Jerusalem forced back into unhappy unity with its eastern half, now annexed and made into the new capital; with the tamed heights of the Golan, which had once threatened above the tiny frontier kibbutz of Gadot, where she and my father, years before in the late 1950s, had done their bit to try to people the border, and failed; and with the great expanse of the Sinai and the great scoop of the West Bank filled in.
Over the weeks leading up to the Six Day War, my parents had followed the build-up on the borders on the tiny black-and-white television screen in their cramped flat in Twickenham. They clung to each other in anxiety and mutual reassurance. My mother wrote to her family in Israel. None of them had telephones, and she had no news. She wrote about my brother, Guy, and his talkativeness and about my sister, Illana, who had started to walk; about the progress of my father's studies, and her acquisition of careful BBC English, but she never mentioned her guilt about leaving; she never mentioned her homesickness.
Each night during the escalation, after my brother and sister had been put to bed, after my mother wished them halomot metukim, sweet dreams (as, later, she would wish me every bedtime, so that my night-times were threaded with the unmappable geography of Hebrew), she went into the tiny living room, and with my father sat down to watch the nine o'clock news, my mother peering, short-sighted, at General Nasser's familiar face, railing, filling the screen.
Every day, haltingly, she read the newspaper from cover to cover, standing lost in the news, her arms holding the paper wide, as she still does, while my sister napped in the early afternoon. During the late afternoon she would take my brother and sister to the playground. My brother's English by then, in 1967, was becoming fluent; it had been more than two years since he'd stopped speaking Hebrew. One Saturday morning, a heavy older boy, the plug of mucus in his nose crusted with sand, had stood over him and told him to get off his swing. My brother had looked up, blank and uncomprehending, so the boy had pushed him off. My mother realised then that she would have to switch to English. Like so many Israelis, my mother had grown up with only one language, despite generation after generation of Jewish multilingualism. Without any idea of the riches and possibilities of bilingualism, alone in her mother-tongue, she gave it up. By the time I was old enough to remember, my brother had lost his first language, and Hebrew had been reduced to family secrets and dreams. It lingered only as a private language between my parents, and in my bedtime rituals.
Now over the days the suspense built and built. Perhaps I was conceived in that suspense. Perhaps my parents gave each other some comfort, and what started me was an easing of their distress. Night after night they watched the reports of troops manoeuvring, tanks massing; night after night they heard the calm, reasoned BBC interpretation of angry polemic. Then Israel acted, and their unbearable suspense and anxiety shifted from the potential to the actual.
Certainly for my parents this was a necessary pre-emptive act. To them, the Israeli bombing of Egypt's fleet of MiGs, those gleaming metal toys lined up, vulnerable, wavering in the heat rising from the tarmac, was the trigger of a war that was going to happen anyway. They could not countenance the other version, that it was an act of aggress-ion, that Israel provoked a war that otherwise would have remained merely manoeuvres and rhetoric. Those airfields lay orderly and still on the morning of the 5th of June, 1967, before the Israeli airforce tore out of the Negev, screaming like the Harriers and Tornadoes that rip through Welsh airspace, causing sheep to abort and women to miscarry. Compared to the romance with the air in these names, how utilitarian the Russian numbered jets seem – MiG17s, or MiG-21s.
During the six days of the war, my parents' anxiety focused, narrowed, became not a calculation of risk, but a calculation of potential success, and then of actual success. Perhaps my first cellular divisions were not marked by uncertainty, but instead were flooded, irradiated by relief, then joy, then euphoria. This was how Yitzak Rabin's widow, after his assassination, remembered the outcome of the Six Day War: 'This euphoria,' she kept repeating; 'this euphoria.'
Maybe that's when I began, a collision of cells in a flood of euphoria. It's what I grew up with: Israel idealised, heroic, embattled and honourable, powerful out of necess-ity, and always moral in its deployment of power. It's what I held onto long into my adulthood, only slightly troubled by the changes in others' views. But underlying my parents' fierce relief, bounded by moral rectitude, as they believed then, was my mother's homesickness.
Homesickness, and the longing for return, saturated my childhood. My mother's yearning was palpable. Later, when a poem that I wrote about it was published, she asked, 'But how did you know?' How could I not have known? Her homesickness was like the unhealing, unhealable wound of the Fisher King. When I read that, in some children's version of Le Morte D'Arthur, or Gawain and the Green Knight, or Parsifal, and, later, found it redacted in Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree, where the mournful, grieving king has been wounded by doubt, I recognised it instantly – how the king begs to be left alone, his voice full of an aching sadness. But though in the end he is relieved of his despair, for my mother there was no such comfort.
That first time my family went back to Israel, in 1978, I hadn't wanted to go. I was afraid of being homesick. I suffered terribly from homesickness. If I went on a school trip, if I went to a friend's house, I became distressed – I missed the safety of my mother. For the first two years of school I wept at the window, watching my mother leave, or wept when, having got absorbed in something, I looked up to find she'd gone. I was painfully, totally attached to my mother. Even when I was with her, I missed her, because part of her was always missing – part of her was inaccessible, is still inaccessible, lost inside the cold, hard lock-up of her soul, which the kibbutz exacted from every child as the cost of the ideal, new, egalitarian society.
My parents coaxed me into excitement about travelling to Israel through the promise of new birds. When I was nine years old, all my being was focused on birds. Wherever we went, I ordered places by birds: I navigated by the birds I had seen and the birds I might see. For my ninth birthday, my father had given me the massive Birds of Prey of the World, which I still have. I pored over the AA Book of the Road, with its illustrations of the great-crested grebe's mating dance, and the coloured, precise cross-section of a green woodpecker's head, so you could see how its ant-adapted tongue coiled inside its skull. I saved pocket money for months to buy the chocolate-brown RSPB Birdlife of Britain. Now my father let me look through his precious first edition of Henry Baker Tristram's Fauna and Flora of Palestine. Tristram had a string of letters after his name – LLD, DD, FRS. The pages smelled musty, and the heavy book was old, very old, from long ago in the previous century. There were protective wax papers over the coloured plates, and taxonomic divisions and Latin names I could not understand. I turned the pages carefully, reading Tristram's odd, old-fashioned descriptions of griffon vultures, and sunbirds, and the grackle, which was named after him, and we spent hours together with the Collins Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East, identifying and listing what new birds we might see: the roller, the bee-eater, the hoopoe, bulbuls, Smyrna kingfishers, eagles and wheatears. That battered copy, published in 1972, which my parents have kept all these years, is marked, throughout, with a little inked Star of David, for each species we saw during that month-long trip in Israel in 1978, and the next in 1980, and their later return visits without me, after I'd left home.
My family had moved from London to a village in Sussex when I was a year old; when I was seven we moved again to a house on the edge of Ashdown Forest, where we went birdwatching at the weekends. We travelled to Wales in 1973 and 1974 looking for red kites, and we drove a long car-sick journey through fields and stone walls until at last we came upon a pair of them floating out of the mist somewhere near Tregaron, a sighting that even now, when he describes it, makes my father's voice reverently hushed. In France we saw flamingos and golden orioles, a bird so glorious and odd with its catcry that for a while I adopted Oriole as my middle name. Often on Sundays we would go birdwatching at Weirwood Reservoir, rushing there, once, when we heard an osprey had been sighted. For three months, for a Young Ornithologists' Club competition, I got up at dawn every day to make a record of the wildlife in a small patch of wasteland and woodland at the edge of the A22. There is a mound there, planted with ancient yews, and riddled with badger setts. It is the old midden of the nearby manor house, but we called it the burial mound and every spring, when the badgers cleared out their setts, I looked in the fresh heaped earth for bones. I knew the common British birds by silhouette and flight pattern, by their gait or their call; I knew the birds I had not yet seen from the books, and from a scratchy record of the dawn chorus I listened to over and over.
None of this birdwatching could compare to the teeming wealth of birds I saw, at ten, in Israel. Israel was, for me, a landscape known first through its birds. The birds, and my excitement over them, my absorption in them, was also a refuge, because during this first visit, and the subsequent one, my mother, rediscovering and revelling in her own language, became a stranger.
It begins in the aeroplane, as we land. We are given sweets for the landing, and when the plane touches down, a drift of voices begins to sing, and my mother sings too, quietly. It is a melancholy, haunting melody I've not heard before, and I look at her, shocked: she is wiping her eyes under her glasses. I have never before seen her cry. Later, when I learn it, HaTikva – The Hope, the Israeli national anthem – and even now if I hear it, it is that moment it evokes: the shock of uncertainty, my mother remote, caught up in feeling something I cannot understand but immediately want to be part of, and my sense of alienation from her, of loss, and yearning.
We walk down the metal stairs and the evening is purple and velvet and warm, and men are kissing the dusty tarmac at the foot of the steps, repeatedly, mumbling, in a kind of passion.
In my grandmother's seventh-floor apartment in Tel Aviv, I wake up the next day, weeping. In Hebrew, my mother is transformed and unreachable. Unable to understand her, I see her clearly: simultaneously familiar and unknowable, like those around her – people who look like her, black-haired, olive-skinned, who look like me, too, but with whom I cannot talk.
Excerpted from Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye. Copyright © 2015 Jasmine Donahaye. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Proem - leaving Israel 7
1 Motherland 14
2 Disorientation 43
3 Love and longing 70
4 Telling tales 100
5 Surveillance 134
6 Claiming dominion 162
Postscript - coming home 188
A note on sources 198
Works cited 200