Ashkelon, in the Hamas-targeted south of Israel, a few kilometers from Gaza, is the region’s largest Israeli city. It’s also the Israeli city that has been struck by more rockets than any other—more than a thousand. As I read about that, I think of my grandmother and the postcard she sent me from her trip there in 1962. She was a part of a movement to build Ashkelon—including its port and hospital—not to destroy it. For her, it was not about colonization; hers was a dream of building a new nation, as a light unto the nations and a refuge.
Ethel Levine was a school teacher, a symphony lover, a mother, of course, but as much as anything she was a Zionist. When I was born in 1950, she and my grandfather purchased State of Israel bonds in my name, to go along, I assume, with their own portfolio of them. This was no minor act of faith, I later realized. Were the fledgling state of Israel not to survive, their investments would be no more valuable than Confederate dollars. She was putting her money where her faith was.
But she did much more—and that was why she was visiting Ashkelon in 1962. Make no mistake: This was no tourist spot in the Holy Land. She was there because she was the Cleveland president of Pioneer Women, a Labor Zionist organization which, as its name implies, supported not just the government but kibbutzim and projects to develop “the Land,” as the Zionists called Israel. Such investments would include growing Ashkelon. Hers was a dream of development where there had been a vacuum, about laying the groundwork for prosperity, including for Palestinians should they choose to participate.
As she wrote, “Now they are building a new city because they need a new port to ship the products of the Dead Sea around the world as Haifa is too far away.” This to a 12-year-old boy. The Pioneer Women were serious about what we’d today call development economics.
There were chapters in many US cities with Jewish communities, bringing in speakers for the Zionist cause, raising money even before World War II. In Milwaukee, her counterpart as chapter president was one Golda Meyerson, later Golda Meier, who once slept at her house.
The postcard came from a place very much on the frontlines today. The hospital that South African Jews paid to build is actually treating Hamas victims. Her message was clear. A new city was rising on an old village site, while outside of town the Bedouins, “have done nothing with the desert.”
She wrote: “This is what the Israelis have built. It is a beautiful new city and everywhere they make the desert bloom.” For some years, when I was a leftist, I saw this is as trite, at best, propagandistic at worst, that new old saw about making the desert bloom.
But, of course, she was right. Israel would give drip irrigation to the world, the story told in Seth Siegel’s Let There Be Water, which also featured Israeli scientist Shoshan Haran and her work at the Israeli seed company Hazera Genetics. Its products have helped increase crop yields not only in Israel but the developing world, including Muslim countries in Africa. Yes, the desert has, indeed, bloomed. Haran is at this writing believed to still be a hostage in Gaza, her husband dead at the hands of Hamas.
It was, in part, knowing of my grandmother’s zeal for the parts of Israel south of Tel Aviv that drew my wife, middle son and his wife to that region not that long ago. A close friend of his from high school was there, too, now in the IDF. His friend had himself grown up in kibbutz Nir Oz, hard on Gaza border, where death and terror struck deep and to which he took us then. “Every Jew should see it,” he said of the proximity of the Gaza border—including the fence that Hamas tunneled under, he said, popping up inside the kibbutz. That was before paragliders, when they thought the safe houses would help. His brother, he tells my son, saved his family by fighting off Hamas but was himself taken hostage.
My grandmother died in 1967, before that year’s attack on Israel, before so many wars. The Ashkenazi Jewish women’s disease—breast cancer—took her from me. But her dream still lives, for now.