How the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Got Me Dumped

Fifteen years ago, before the death of irony and cassette tapes, I fell in love with a girl while living on a kibbutz in Israel. At least it felt like love at the time. Like the affair itself, my arrival … Read More

By / May 8, 2007

Fifteen years ago, before the death of irony and cassette tapes, I fell in love with a girl while living on a kibbutz in Israel. At least it felt like love at the time. Like the affair itself, my arrival in Israel was an act of happenstance. I had just dropped out of law school, veering from a path that had been carefully cultivated by my parents since I was in the fifth grade. This semi-rebellious act left me rootless and ready to take on the world. I was looking to travel to any place, so long as it was away from home. Israel was not the only foreign port that beckoned me forth, but it was warm and far away and full of Significance. At the time, it existed for me more as a mythic abstraction than a geographic reality.

For years my father had been keenly focused on this tiny sliver of land, though I never really understood why. As is the case with many American Jews, Israel influenced his voting behavior, his philanthropic choices and even the books he read. Any decision was justifiable so long as it benefited the Holy Land. Thanks to this cultural cover, it was an easier sell to my parents than Telluride or Prague, other favored destinations for clichéd wanderers at the time. But my decision to move to a kibbutz wasn’t motivated by my father’s political myopia. I was just after the Zionist dream of living communally, turning the desert into a garden, and hooking up with adventurous young Scandinavians who volunteered for kibbutz life as a cheap way to extend world tours.

As it turned out, I never had the chance to enjoy that last rite-of-passage. On nearly my first day on the kibbutz, I fell madly in lust with Leah, an outspoken South African with pale blue eyes and lustrous auburn hair. She was fresh off six months of teaching art to Palestinian children in the West Bank, and her Johannesburg accent gave her an exotic, sophisticated air. This was a woman who had spent a year touring Europe as a member of a punk trio after graduating from one of England’s finest boarding schools. Had Graham Greene been asked write a sequel to Slacker, Leah could have been his female protagonist. I was in love with her at first sight—or with the idea of her, which was, frankly, the same thing to me back then.

As in college and prison, time spent on a kibbutz is catalyzed by severe insularity. Leah and I were together nearly every hour of every day. There were few literal or figurative walls of any kind, so our relationship simply leapt into existence without the incremental steps of courtship. Within three weeks I had moved into her living space, a large cabin at the far end of the volunteers’ compound. Luckily, she had not been assigned a bunkmate, so we pushed two rickety twin beds together and built a makeshift honeymoon suite.

This spontaneity was exactly what I was looking for after the bloodless experience of law school, not to mention my previous relationships. The girlfriend I’d had prior to leaving for Israel wanted nothing more than to settle down and live in a midwestern suburb. Leah was different from the other women I’d been with, most of whom didn’t own electric guitars or the complete works of Hunter S. Thompson. She was uninterested in defining our relationship, and she seemed unburdened by the concept of dating with a specific end goal in mind.

Thanks to the sub-tropical heat of the Israeli summer, clothes were optional, a situation that was tailor-made (so to speak) for young lovers anxious to explore their “cultural commonalities.” Leah and I formed a community of two, falling into a shared life. Our work took us to different parts of the kibbutz—she toiled in a dog food factory while I had to good fortune to work in the sun-drenched avocado fieldsbut in our free time we were inseparable. We tended to skip the group social activities in favor of our cozy co-habitation, reading, playing “shesh besh”, and indulging in the kibbutz’s main source of live entertainment: drinking cheap vodka while sitting around a bonfire.

But all was not milk and honey in our enchanted garden. Leah was a diehard proponent of Palestinian liberation, and she felt that any Israeli presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was illegal, immoral and unjustified. She also contended that the military support provided by the United States to Israel made America, and all Americans, complicit.

At first I simply nodded at her passionate pleas without giving them much thought. But eventually the fruits of the political discussions my father had endlessly belabored began to rise to the surface. I started to assert my own views, or at least those that were then popular in The Jerusalem Report. But when I tried to suggest that Palestinian violence had helped create the current situation, or that there were viable scenarios that would allow for the creation of Palestinian state, she would label me a “lie-spouting bourgeois jackass,” which is an argument that was hard to counter intellectually.

My opinions on the complicated subject were irrelevant, really, because my nationality had, in her eyes, pre-determined my complicity. Had she listened to me, she might have learned that although I had been raised to view Israel as the righteous defender of its land, actually being there had broadened my perspective. I didn’t agree entirely with her arguments, but I saw merit in some of them.

But I was not bothered by the name-calling. As far as thickheaded zealots go, Leah was captivating and cute. In fact, the furious verbal sparring gave our evening liaisons an intense additional jolt. I don’t know how Arafat was in bed, but to do this day I say there is no better aphrodisiac than political disagreement. Still, her inability to see any side but her own made me worry about our long-term compatibility. Compromise is a necessary ingredient in any relationship, whether between mismatched lovers or ethnic factions that have been warring since the biblical age over a landmass the size of Maryland. Extremism, on the other hand, is a dangerous portent, in both love and war. It got to the point where we couldn’t read the newspaper in the same room. The only solution was to avoid the subject of politics altogether.

Avoidance was a skill I had in surplus as a young male, but something about our purposeful lack of communication felt false. How could we be so synched in every aspect but this one? Leah often spoke of “the privileged blindness of Americans,” but I never felt it applied to Americans like me. Perhaps, in truth, I was not as worldly as I imagined myself to be. For all of the open-mindedness I thought my time spent traveling had engendered, was I simply another over-privileged suburbanite with a well-stamped passport and a worn North Face backpack? I was living with a woman to whom my very nationality was an affront. For a person who claimed she preferred to live without borders, Leah had defined ours pretty sharply.

The détente we’d established went on for a few months, until one night when we were camping on a desolate Mediterranean beach. As we cuddled in one large sleeping bag beneath the stars, she said that, as much as she cared for me, she couldn’t be with someone who didn’t share her worldview. I had seen this coming, but it still sent me reeling. I’d been dumped in the past, but usually for reasons that related to my own personal shortcomings. Leah and I were splitting up over a geopolitical morass that the best minds in statesmanship had been unable to solve for several millennia. Like the peace process itself, we had apparently taken the middle road off the table.

Breaking up on a kibbutz is impossible. I moved out of her cabin, but we still slept less than fifty feet from each other and ate all our meals in the same cramped cafeteria. Somehow we managed to tap into a wellspring of maturity that allowed us to weather the proximity, establishing a cordial acquaintanceship but avoiding any prolonged interaction. Heartbroken, I took solace in the consistent regimen of workaday kibbutz life, turning myself into the fastest avocado picker in the Middle East. My downtime was spent clutching dog-eared volumes of Rilke, which didn’t help my cause much. Taking the advice of my male bunkmates, I tried to woo several of the Danish volunteers, who were especially receptive to male attention. But I was “Leah’s ex,” and nobody wanted to make time with a marked man.

The ever-popular Leah had no such problems. She was quickly pursued by a soft-spoken Argentine named Luis who also lived on the kibbutz. With his laissez-faire South American attitude, Luis offered her political commiseration, not to mention a long-term commitment. They ended up getting married, making aliyah and becoming permanent members of the kibbutz. As far as I know, they’re still there today. I came back to the States a year later, after long stops in Morocco and Mexico, to begin graduate school.

I’ve thought about Leah a lot in the interceding years, but any feelings of loss have always been buttressed by the fact that we broke up for external, impersonal reasons. It never occurred to me that she had merely used our political differences as a means to let me down gently. Or that my tendency to mythologize certain geographic regions had also extended toward the concept of Love itself. But apparently the same blind passions that keep nations divided prevented me from seeing what was happening right before my very eyes.

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