Israel and Me

I recently attended the Avi Shaefer Symposium here in Jerusalem. The theme of the Symposium, “The Meaning and Purpose of Israel as a Jewish State”, is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. The speakers, including Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a leader of “Women of the Wall”, and Rabbi Shai Held, the director of Mechon Hadar, raised questions from all “sides” of the debate regarding the place of Judaism in Israel and the place of Jews in Israel. These are questions and ideas that are at the heart of my thoughts now.

Now that I feel more comfortable with the details of daily life here (sometimes I now have a hard time switching back to English after a full day of speaking Hebrew), I am making a concerted effort to explore and learn more about current issues in Israeli society. I have been exhaustively reading the news for a while, but it is time I get off the Haaretz website and go see for myself the “issues” I read about. The problem is, to my mind, that I have spent so much time reading about issues that I feel I have a viewpoint on many of them and am struggling to “approach with an open mind”. But, when I express my views to Israeli friends, I sometimes feel that they dismiss my opinions as naïve. Even those who know how much I read and therefore don’t tell me “I don’t know what I’m talking about” cannot be blamed for pointing out that maybe I don’t have the right to comment on how a state that is not mine reacts to and deals with her own political issues.

This type of response, something to the effect of “well, you’re not Israeli so what do you know?” cuts to the heart of a debate that is currently bouncing back and forth inside my head. The core of my ethical debate with myself concerns my position in Israel and the Jewish community right now. I am here “serving” or volunteering in Israel as part of a US-funded international Jewish fellowship. While CIMI and the JDC are non-political, the mere fact of working with African migrants in Israel is inherently controversial. Finally, as I feel increasingly invested in the State of Israel, or at least my ability to live here in peace and security and find personal and religious fulfillment, I still do not have immediate plans to make Aliyah; this is to say, I am invested in and passionate about Israel and it’s future, but I won’t take the (maybe) necessary step of legally aligning my life with the life of the State.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I currently volunteer a few hours a week teaching English to African refugees (or asylum seekers, or migrants, or infiltrators, depending on your preferred terminology). I still love the exposure I get to real people, and I find teaching personally fulfilling and energizing. But I clearly get some weird looks when I tell Israelis that I spend two nights a week doing this. What is a young, American Jewish woman doing teaching English in Israel to a dozen Arabic speaking Sudanese men who are in Israel illegally? This confusion falls in to place with what I have also mentioned in previous posts, about how most Israelis I meet assume that I fall on one side of the American and Israeli political spectrum by virtue of my being an American in Israel. Why else would I have come here, if not in support of the State of Israel as it stands?

They have a point. Is it not somewhat pompous of me to say that I wanted to come to Israel now precisely because I want to change things here? What right do I have, as a non-citizen who did not serve in the IDF and who has no family here, to comment on Israeli policies? Anat Hoffman phrased the question differently: Is Israel the property of Israelis, or Jews? The American Jewish community, and the United States in general, has made an enormous investment over many decades in the State of Israel, so naturally many people feel that they have a right to comment on how Israel conducts her affairs. But I’m not sure that’s fair, since at the end of the day I, as an American Jew, can leave and then don’t have to live with the consequences of whatever I advocate.

The problem with Anat’s question is that there isn’t a good answer—whichever side you choose, you end up naturally excluding a major stakeholder. If we give preference to Israelis, we must take in to account the 1.2 million Israeli Arabs who live here. But if we choose the other side, we risk marginalizing these same millions of people who live on this same beautiful land.

This debate clearly isn’t going anywhere. One of my goals upon moving to Israel was to equip myself with the knowledge and experience to be able (and allowed) to talk about what Israel can and should or can’t and shouldn’t do. Six months in, I am certainly more knowledgeable but not any more willing to make policy declarations.  Nonetheless, I want to keep seeing, learning and thinking. Hopefully, by seeing and hearing from real people more about the complexities of Israel, I will be able to resolve some of the internal debates that are currently raging in my head

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