I did not want to come to Israel initially.
Israel is often discussed in the context of the occupation, Gaza wars, and violence of the IDF. Westtown is pro-Palestine, as most Quakers choose the side of the underdog. During the two weeks I spent studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict earlier this winter, I read many articles scrutinizing Israel and uplifting the Palestinian voice. When the Jewish Student Union brought a speaker from the Anti-Defamation League to speak on anti-Semitism, the Jewish students asked her to speak about the anti-Israel movement prevalent on college campuses, because we felt to ignore it would not address the elephant in the room. I did not want to come to Israel because I felt extremely conflicted. I would read one article saying the IDF is a moral military and is always on the defensive side, and then watch a video of an Israeli soldier denying an elderly woman access into Israel to get the medicine she cannot get in the West Bank.
To me, being Jewish means being a good person even in the most difficult situations. Every Shabbat we read from our prayer book, “When you come across a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it. It shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow–in order that God may bless you in all your undertakings [Deut. 24.19] Happy are those who consider the poor [Psalm 41.2] May we together with all our people respond to the needs of others, from the fruits of our harvest this week, we share with others. And so we gain blessings, our lives have meaning, our lives have love.” Being Jewish means tzedaka, always giving back and helping those who cannot help themselves. The most charitable people I know are Jewish: my grandparents; aunts; cousins – every one of them does what they can for the betterment of others. Wherever I find myself in the world, be that Paris, Cuba, or India, I have found a community amongst Jews.
Among all Jews is an understanding of suffering, persecution, and oppression. Our holidays celebrate victories – with Chanukah, the victory over the Greeks, with Purim, the fall of the evil Haman, and, most importantly, Passover and the exodus from slavery in Egypt. But our suffering is not ancient, as every Jew feels the tragedies of the Holocaust when the world turned a blind eye while Hitler ordered the systematic deaths of six million Jews in Europe. I do not know of any other group of people that has faced as much hatred for as long as it has existed.
If this is Judaism, then this should be the Jewish state.
I didn’t want to come to Israel, yet here I am. I wanted to live as a Jew but I wanted to be separate from the State of Israel. The separation was more comfortable than accepting the reality. After 18 days of touring the country and meeting many people working for the advancement of Israeli life, I see that the reality is far from the dream of Eretz Yisrael. I have a choice – I can go back to America and forget the stories of the people here. I can be a good American Jew, read JPost, support Israel without question, do a Birthright trip, and turn a blind eye to the injustice. But if you know me, you know I cannot do that.
I believe the future of Jews is intertwined with the future of the Jewish State. My future will reflect Israel. Jews believe that life is full of tests from God. I believe that our relationship with Palestinians is our current test.
After living here for 3 weeks, I am less confused but more conflicted. I feel like I can argue both sides of the conflict. On the one hand, Israel needs to be safe. There cannot be stabbings and bombs going off on a regular basis. It not only kills innocent people, it also perpetuates a culture of fear. When Israelis hear that Palestinian children read books in school calling Jews rats, it evokes memories of the Holocaust, when German children were taught Jews were like rats and Hitler used pesticides to exterminate millions in gas chambers. When I asked an Israeli what he thought of the IDF, he looked confused. “What do you mean ‘what do I think’? There is nothing to think about, it is a must. There is nothing to question, it must exist if we are to exist. The IDF does what it needs to do to protect the citizens of Israel against people who detest us.”
But if a Palestinian mother loses her son when he is shot by an IDF soldier, she will hate the soldier who shot him and the country the soldier shot him for. In effect, she will hate Israel- the Jewish state. So on the other hand, the majority of Palestinians do not hate Jews; they just want to exist in peace and have freedom, but can not because of extremist groups that perpetuate fear. Animosity grows every day under the occupation.
I have come to see corruption in both governments and believe they lack the leadership and courage to bring peace. Some say there has been no effort to make peace. Some say treaties and negotiations between Israel and the PLO have been created but are not being honored. Unlike many who feel truth lies between extremes, I believe it lies in the eye of the beholder. Everyone seems to have their eyes on Israel and the more eyes that are on Israel, the more truths there are.
As outsiders, we choose to see the side that enforces what we already believe, which is why it is so hard to see the truth in the other side. It has become clear to me, however, that there is always another explanation as to why things are the way they are. Yet, suffering has no boundaries, politics, or religion.
I can spend hours fighting both sides in my mind, reading articles, watching videos, and praying for peace. I do not choose to retreat in the face of suffering but I do not know what I am supposed to do to; I have a feeling it will become clear when the time is right. As a Jew, it is my responsibility to manifest the Jewish state, a state in which Judaism exists in its true form: love of all humanity. Religion, like everything, can be a force of evil. Yet I have seen spiritual leaders use religion as the greatest force of good. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Israel is not the only place with injustice. My Dad once said “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes,” and I am slowly understanding what he means.
I do not walk away from this trip with bold assertions about what needs to happen for there to be peace, nor with a firm grasp of everything that already is happening, for that would be naive. I will not speak on behalf of all Jews everywhere nor will I speak on behalf of Israel to people who want to start arguments or people who believe they understand everything. I will, however, continue to learn and to listen because I choose to be invested in the wellbeing of the state of my people.
I know when I go home distance will make it easy for me to forget the sense of community I feel here. All I will have are pictures and memories of the breathtaking nature and the kindhearted people. I did not want to come to Israel, but things have a funny way of working out. Now, I do not want to leave.
P.S. I wrote this post during my last few days in Israel but did not have time to edit it. I am home now.