I’m Not a Bad Jew

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I’m Not a Bad Jew

By Hannah Chorley



For the longest time, I thought I was a horrible Jew. My family only attended synagogue on the High Holidays, and to pass the time there I braided my uncle’s tallit. My mother dragged me to Jewish school, depositing me in an angry, whining heap at the front of my classroom at nine every Sunday morning. I had memorized all the prayers, yet the Hebrew coming out of my mouth held no meaning for me – I could sound out the letters yet I had never learned their translation.

My nine-person mixed family is comprised of three Jews – a blend of reform and long forgotten conservatism – a former Catholic altar boy, a newfound Buddhist, three “Christmas only” Christians, and an outspoken atheist who blames religion for the world’s problems. I felt very un-Jewish, compared to my synagogue friends who only had Jewish blood running through their veins. Since my world wasn’t dominated by Judaism (my mom lost the fight about where to send me to grade school… sorry, JCC), I had to actually try to integrate myself into the community, and to be honest, I never did.

So when I applied to be a part of the Diller Teen Fellows, a 15-month Jewish leadership program, at the end of my sophomore year, I felt like I was way outside of my comfort zone. I think I made it in because I added a little bit of diversity among the K-8 Jewish Day School graduates and Holocaust center volunteers. They spoke confidently about their involvement in the Jewish community, their Shabbat traditions (of which I had none), and their connections to Judaism and Israel (a place I had never been). Once again, I was intimidated by the Jewish-ness of it all.

Throughout the program, we participated in activities and workshops that helped us explore our Jewish identity and cultivate our skills as leaders in and outside of our Jewish community. The program culminated in a month-long trip to Israel that involved community service, exploration, a homestay, and many seminars led by strong Jewish leaders. Leading up to the trip, my fellow Diller members and I spent many hours talking about everything Israel. I just sat back and listened, as I was one of six kids who had never actually been to Israel. All I kept hearing was that it was “the most beautiful place”, that I would “instantly feel at home” and that my Jewish identity would “click and all come together” when I visited. It’s safe to say that I had my hopes up, because everything that I heard painted Israel in a positive, pretty, shining light.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t indulge in a healthy dose of world news very often, and prior to my trip I was very ignorant to the current transgressions in the Middle East. I knew about the Israel-Palestine conflict, defined by Middle East Research and Information Project as a land dispute over modern day Israel, in which Israel argues biblical ownership over the land and Palestinians use their historical residence in the area to claim their right over the area. Following the war to establish Israel in 1948, the land was divided into the State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Yet the different groups of people were fuzzy to me. Is there a difference between an Arab and a Muslim? Through later research, I found that according to Encyclopedia Britannica, an Arab is defined as someone who speaks Arabic and is a descendant of Arabia. A Palestinian, according to the Middle East Research and Information Project, is an Arab Christian, Muslim, or Druze who traces their roots back to the territory of Palestine defined by British mandate.

Before my trip, I thought I would immediately take the Israeli side in the conflict. My limited prior knowledge of Israel consisted of conversations in Diller and synagogue and with relatives, as well as bits and pieces from history class. From this, I had inferred that the Israelis were in the complete right and the Palestinians, the complete wrong. Everyone who found out about my upcoming trip told me that I would love everything about Israel, and so I assumed that I would.

But as I sit here a full month after my trip, my feelings toward Israel are much more complicated. I assumed I would write this the second I got home, yet it’s taken me this long to process my experience enough to put (hopefully) coherent thoughts down on the paper. What I realized very quickly upon my arrival to the Ben Gurrion airport in Tel Aviv, is that Israel is not all pretty, shining lights; it’s an intricate and often uncomfortable place. Throughout my four weeks there, I was forced to act, think, and speak outside of my religious and cultural comfort zone. I also realized the deep cultural and racial divides that the Israel-Palestine conflict has created between Israelis and Arabs.

I spent two weeks living with an Israeli exchange student named Eliya in the Upper Galilee, the tiny sliver of land wedged between Syria and Lebanon in the north of Israel. Eliya is the most progressive, secular (non-religious) hippie that I know. She has a smiley face tattooed on her ankle and an edible garden in her backyard, and she cringes at the idea of entering a synagogue. Her family lives on a Kibbutz (enclosed community) that is considered the “hippiest” in the Upper Galilee. She plays the ukulele and wants to move to Berkeley someday. I considered her to be a fully open minded and loving human being until the call to prayer echoed through her backyard from the neighboring Arab Muslim village.

“I think it’s kind of beautiful,” I said.

She sighed, seemingly disgusted. “I just wish they would keep that awful noise down or go back to their own country,” she exclaimed.

Her mom chimed in, “Yes, it’s pretty annoying having to hear that every day.”

A week later, the group of Israeli and American teenagers that I was part of visited the first, and one of the only, mixed Arab-Israeli villages called Neve Shalom. In this village, Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs (yes, those do exist), and Jewish Israelis live, raise, and school their children together. Children are taught both Hebrew and Arabic, and there has even been intercultural marriage. When the Americans heard this, the overwhelming majority of us were elated and relieved, because finally someone was trying to mend the divide that we all saw, but our Israeli friends were outraged that any Jew would even think of accepting an Arab as their neighbor. My first instinct was to argue, as this felt strangely reminiscent of racial tensions in the pre-Civil rights era of the U.S. After both groups calmed down and boarded the bus, I decided to ask one of my Israeli friends, Itay, why he believed the Neve Shalom’s mission was such a disgrace to society.

“Hannah,” he said. “Every Israeli knows at least one person who has died during combat. And you know who killed them? Arabs.”

“But the first step to solving any conflict is reaching out and making a personal connection,” I replied. “Those people living in the village aren’t fighting in any war, all they want is peace.”

“I just don’t know how anyone could live with someone who belongs to a people that has killed his or her brothers and sisters,” he said. “Anyways, I’m going to the army in two years and I’m going to fight them.”

That’s when I first realized the complicated mentality of fear and pride intertwined into Israeli society. They are fearful: fearful because many of them lived in bomb shelters when they were six years old during the Second Lebanon War in 2006; fearful because last summer was marked by the sight of missiles and the piercing sound of the bomb alarm. They spend at least 18 years in anticipation of their two-plus years of mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and from a young age, Israelis are raised to fear their Arab neighbors, because in just a few years, they will have to learn to fight them.

I had seen the IDF’s prominence in Israeli society over the past two weeks, as Eliya’s kibbutz was currently being used for some form of army training, so there were dozens upon dozens of rifle-armed, uniform clad 18 to 20 year olds walking around in the streets. At first I was shocked and fearful, because in Mill Valley the sight of a gun requires ten police calls and another ten cop cars, but I eventually became accustomed to the sight of these young soldiers and the loud booms from the bomb testing that I awoke to every morning. As I watched the soldiers hold their guns as if they were a weightless extension of their air, I began to feel proud to belong to a people that cultivate such power and strength. There is also an overwhelming feeling of pride: pride in the IDF and the important jobs they themselves will one day hold in the army; pride in the Iron Dome, the air defense systems that intercepts and destroys rocket and artillery shells; pride in their ancestors for pioneering the land; pride for being descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and of the many wars that have plagued Israel. As an outsider I was able to pinpoint these feelings more easily and recognize that one would only be able to overcome fear by putting aside pride and forming deep and personal intergroup connections.

Yet as my conversation with Itay continued, I started to realize that maybe I was too quick to judge his feelings. I had never lived in Israel and therefore had never experienced the whirlwind of emotions and actions that are an accepted part of Israeli society: being forced into a bomb shelter in the middle of the night, leaving home at to join the military, watching homes, people, and synagogues burn, burying my 18, 19, and 20-year old friends in the military cemeteries that litter the country. Maybe I just simply couldn’t understand.

Luckily, I was able to form my own connections with Muslim and Christian Arabs over the next two weeks and thus, gain a perspective from both cultures in the conflict. After my three week-program finished, my family joined me in Israel and we ventured to Petra, Jordan and was greeted with hospitality and respect. We befriended an Arab family in the Jerusalem Shuk (market), and they invited us for a homemade breakfast.

When I came home, people immediately asked me if I “fell in love with Israel” like “most Jews do.” And the answer is yes and no. I fell in love with the people. My Israeli friends were the most outgoing, hilarious, loving human beings I have ever met. I have never been hugged daily or called beautiful that many times in my life. They are loud and they speak their mind; there is no beating around the bush in Israel, and that is refreshing. There is a sense of maturity and purpose among them that American teenagers do not possess, due to the fact that they will go to fight for their country in the coming years. When I returned home, I told my mom that I wanted to marry an Israeli boy.

 

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I fell in love with the food. If you’ve never had an Israeli falafel, you’ve never had a falafel. Did you know that they put French fries in their falafels? Israeli hummus is not even the same species as American hummus. I also fell in love with the land and the water: the way-too-hot, way-too-salty Dead Sea, the cool Red Sea nestled in between Egypt and Jordan, the lush valleys and pulsing streams of the North, the jagged desert valley of the South.

But my love for Israel doesn’t mean that I love everything that Israel does, and it’s often taboo for Jews to admit that. Jews living outside of Israel are sometimes expected to support the country blindly, and although I believe in Israel’s mission to provide a homeland for Jews, I do not agree with how Israel has treated the Palestinians and the Arab citizens of Israel over the years, repeatedly forcing them from their homes and building walls that divide communities, all under a structure of laws that are created to discriminate against these groups of people. Although it is often hard for the pro-Israel, Zionist to admit, there were people in the land of Israel before the modern day Israeli, and in order to claim this new state for the Jewish people, the new Israelis had to use violence to force these people out of their home.

But I am torn, because it’s important to take into account the thousands of years of repeated persecution that the Jews faced. The creation of the state of Israel came in conjunction with the ending of World War II and the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were lost, both spiritually and physically, and the creation of this sacred Jewish homeland brought unity, energy, and safety.

I cried and laughed more during that month in Israel than I ever have before, because Israel is a place of extremes. There are so many different histories, cultures, religions, and ideas bound into a country 1/18th the size of California. I find something so dangerously beautiful about that juncture, as it is one that inspires conversation and thought.

Last week, an older woman at the gym found out I had recently been to Israel and struck up a conversation with me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was shocked by how passionately the woman hated Israel. “The Israelis are murderers and don’t deserve to keep Israel. They should give all the land back to the Palestinians. Jews who live outside of Israel just follow Israel blindly,” she said. Prior to my trip, I wouldn’t have been able to find the words to respond. I would have probably agreed and gone back to listening to Beyoncé, but now I knew what to say.

“Yes, everything that Israel does isn’t fair, but you need to remember that it is a two-sided conflict and the Jews are being harmed and killed as well,” I said. “You need the compassion and cooperation of both sides, not just Israel, to be able to start mending the divide.”

“But the Israeli government has all the power and the money to make change, and the Arabs have nothing,” she said. “The Israelis don’t even give them basic necessities like food or water. They bulldoze their houses and build walls.”

It took me a minute to reply because what she said was partially true. But my mind kept returning to my conversation with Itay.

I paused “Single Ladies” and devoted my full attention to the conversation with my fellow gym goer. “The power is actually in the hands of the Israeli youth, as they are the ones who make up the majority of the fighters in this war,” I said. “It’s all about gaining perspective and being able to look at it from both sides. The Israelis aren’t all ruthless killers who want to hurt Palestinians for no reason at all. They are simply reacting to the fear they felt for the Arab neighbors when they were younger. Does that justify all of their actions? Of course not, but you shouldn’t be so quick to judge people before taking time to understand the origins of their beliefs.”

Yes, this conversation was difficult, emotionally charged and slightly awkward, to say the least, but I don’t regret having it, and I am so thankful for the experiences I had in Israel that equipped me with the knowledge and confidence to respond to her. I do not believe that it is a Jew’s moral duty to defend everything Israel does, but I do strongly believe that Jews are obliged to learn about Israel, ideally through first hand experience or interactions with Israelis and Arabs, and form their own opinions. There is no denying that Israel is an important place.

I am still trying to flesh out all my opinions about Israel. I love and support my Israeli friends and I love having a Jewish homeland where I am proud to be Jewish. I will support measures that protect the longevity of the state of Israel. My trip helped foster a stronger internal connection to my own Judaism, one that has inspired my family to celebrate Shabbat and attend services on a more regular basis. And I do want to return, because I know that Israel is a place that will teach so much about my history and myself.

One thing is certain though: I know I am not a bad Jew, because it is natural for us to deliver the greatest criticisms to those we love the most.