Israel and Me, Part 2

This post is a continuation on the ideas in the post below, “Israel and Me”. You may want to consider reading that post first.

I can’t help but wonder if I am blowing this whole debate out of proportion by bringing in big words like “nationalism” and “Zionism” and talking about my identity. Would I still be having the same debate about my relationship to the country of service if I were volunteering somewhere other than Israel? Am I mostly connected to this country because I have donated a year of my life to volunteering here?  Does the investment I feel in the well-being of Israel stem not from my perplexing relationship to some sort of Zionist feeling but from the fact that this is my current home?

I was brought up in an observant Jewish home and community, where Israel was part of my education and part of my identity as a Jew. Though I heard a diversity of opinions on how we should relate to “Israel” and what different figures in my life believe the State should or should not do, Israel was always part of the conversation in all of my Jewish communities. I do think there is an important difference in these conversations between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and that it is possible to avoid many of the political conversations about Israel while still maintaining a strong connection; nonetheless, you cannot avoid Israel as an observant Diaspora Jew. Every single time I want to “access” my Judaism in the context of prayer, I must ask which way is Jerusalem and then literally face myself to the city. Meaning, at least as much as a Jew prays, they must also consider the Land of Israel. As AB Yehoshua explained at the Symposium, the most basic, ideology-free definition of Zionism is the desire to establish a State of Israel in the area of the Land of Israel (specific borders notwithstanding). This basic Zionist dream having been fulfilled, praying Diaspora Jews are also forced to consider the State of Israel on a regular basis.

It was with this background and exposure to Israel that I moved here to volunteer. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Jerusalem in many ways feels like home now. Regardless of how long I eventually stay here, at the moment this is where I live. Therefore, I think some of the investment and passion that I feel for what happens in this country is related to this feeling of “home”. When I read about Israel in international newspapers or talk to friends outside of Israel, I instinctively feel some sort of protectiveness and need to correct what I perceive to be incorrect opinions about the country because they are describing my daily reality.

From brief interactions with other fellows, I get the sense that many other Jewish Service Corps fellows also feel a strong attachment and protectiveness for the countries in which they serve. I imagine it would be a terrible feeling to be somewhere for 12 months, never identify with my country of service, and to continually feel like a stranger in the place I live. Being in the same place for many months, making friends here and speaking the language and walking the streets, I cannot help but to begin to identify with my surroundings. This, to me, has less to do with my being in Israel than the mere fact of living in and integrating myself with a new place. I have a relationship with Israel because it is where I am.

More than that, I think my connection to important issues in Israel may in fact stem from the fact that I came here as a volunteer. As I understand my service, I dedicated (or donated) a year of my life to making Israel a little bit better. In the previous post I questioned whether it was pompous or inappropriate for me to be critical of Israel as a non-citizen and volunteer. The other side of this equation if the fact that I would not be here if not specifically to contribute to Israeli society at its weakest points.

There is, tangled up in this balagan about my relationship to Israel, the question of whether I should be worrying about how I contribute to Israel. In one understanding of volunteering, the volunteer gives his or her time out of hesed, kindness that does not expect anything in return. If I was, in fact, selflessly giving my time to Israel, I would not expect in return the right to invest myself in national issues. Clearly, that is not how I conceive of my time here. I am investing in Israel with the expectation that I will also grow as a Jew, a leader and a person through my service. I expect Israel to teach me about itself and allow me in to its national dialogue because I am here volunteering. My expectation is that my relationship with Israel will grow as a result of being here, regardless of whether I am critical or accepting of the status quo and regardless of how much I feel integrated in to the society.

A recent study by the Jewish Agency and the NGO Repair the World, summarized in this article in the Jerusalem Post, precisely confirms my expectations for my volunteer year: “In fact, the Jewish Agency believes that ‘more deeply understanding these dynamics intensifies a bond to the Jewish state’ and that ‘volunteering in Israel often deepens, versus distances, a young Jew’s feelings for the country precisely because of its social complexity.’” The more I know about Israel and the more time I spend in the country, the more strongly I feel a connection to the complex issues currently relevant to Israeli society.

And so, we come back to the question of the universalism of my experience as a foreign volunteer versus the particularism of volunteering in Israel as a North American Jew. Am I making this conversation more significant and more complicated because I can use words like “Zionism”? Or is there something really inherently different about volunteering in Israel in contrast to volunteering anywhere else in the world?

I am open to any and all thoughts!

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