Simply put, there are only two distinct reactions to when a community disappointments you: do something about it or do nothing about it. Engage or disengage. Act or give up. Fight or flight.
I understand the lure of the non-action. I know too well of its seductive power. It is easy to give up and pretend that others might do the fighting for you. From there, it is only a small leap to allow oneself to slip into apathy and not give a damn.
I’m talking about Israel here. Specifically, I’m talking about how many American Jews of my generation have struggled with their relationship to the Jewish State.
I remember growing up in a Jewish community. I remember being a synagogue brat being raised by an observant set of parents. I also remember the Jewish day schools and the “Hebrew High” night school that I attended when I switched over to the public school system. I remember not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons and having to settle for catching the reruns during the weekdays.
I remember Israel. I remember hearing about how it was the best and brightest place on earth. It was where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, where her citizens talk in the same language that we prayed, where Jews actually could tan without turning red and maybe even compete athletically. We were told of her scientific achievements, her robust economy, her warmer climate and lower drinking age.
This place sounded awesome.
We visited the place when I was in third grade. I remember the wailing wall, the archaeological digs, the pizza and the beach. Then I saw a Jewish soldier carrying an M-16 in the Jewish Quarter on the Holy Sabbath. I asked my father for an explanation. He told me that there exists a whole bunch of people that want to destroy Israel and that we need to keep our guard up, even on Saturdays.
I was flabbergasted; why would anyone want to do such a thing? The answers then came from classmates, teachers, community leaders, family and my own assumptions: anti-Semitism. The world wants us dead, simple as that.
So I lived in a bubble of sorts; assuming that anyone who had anything bad at all to say about my ancestors’ homeland were either anti-Semitic, crazy or both. Media outlets and Jewish organizations were quick to agree with my conclusion. These people who protest the Jewish State want us dead. They are the enemy.
For the most part, I was reasonably happy in my bubble. Israel was the land of the Jews, and I was going to defend her no matter what. Even if the detractors sounded reasonable, I just assumed that they could not possibly understand what it meant to be a Jew in this hostile world.
Then came college, which happened around the same time as the 9/11 terror attacks. Although I was shell-shocked and filled with grief and anger, there was a part of me that felt vindicated; this is what we Jews have to deal with every day. It seemed like I was poised to push deeper into my bubble.
But then something odd happened. I remember talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a fellow classmate. I don’t remember her name, but I remember feeling like we believed in a lot of the same things. Her politics and mine weren’t identical per say, just strikingly similar. In this conversation, she mentioned something she did not like about Israel. For the life of me, I can not remember exactly what, but I do remember the uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I also remember not arguing back about it, and feeling puzzled as to why a fair-minded person like her would say such a thing about my country. I resented her and never talked to her again.
I did not realize it then, but this was a life-changing moment. I began to read up a bit on the conflict, not from pro-Zionist sources that I was accustomed to, but from news outlets that didn’t have a stake in the conflict one way or the other. My gut churned and churned as I read about some of the nasty, disgusting things that took place in the name of preserving Judaism.
I then read history books, some of which were written by Israelis who love their country. These books did not paint the rosy picture that I grew up with. I learned of Deir Yassin, Revisionist Zionism, the Nakba and the Occupation.
And the picture didn’t get any better after that either. While the main focus of my attention went towards Israeli and Palestinian issues, I learned of the massive problems within Israel as well. The number of reports of discrimination were too high to count; towards Arab Israelis, feminists, gay-rights activists, Bedouin, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian families and migrant workers. I learned of how the ultra right-wing branch of the Hasidic sect’s clout over public affairs have made a mockery of civic life. I learned how we, survivors of the Holocaust, denied entry to those seeking asylum from the genocide taking place in Darfur. Then came the proposed Rotem Bill, which personally insulted me by suggesting that I may not even be Jewish to begin with.
All done in the name of preserving Judaism.
So I picked flight. I checked out. I wanted nothing to do with this state. Nothing.
One day, I found myself reading the New York Times online. You know, back when it was free. While reading the article, I somehow was drawn to a banner ad. (Whoever clicks those, right?) It was an advertisement for the NIForum, a symposium on social justice issues in Israel by the New Israel Fund. I don’t remember why I was drawn to it, but I decided to give these guys a shot and attended the forum.
At the forum, I discovered a whole society of Jews who, like me, knew as much as I did about Israel. I began to talk with them and found that they also found a way to face these painful truths, while still holding a special place for Israel in their hearts. I learned of the amazing work NIF does by funding a whole assemblage of non-profit groups that strive to make Israel a better place. I learned of ACRI, who’s work as Israel’s premier civil rights group astounds me to this day. I learned of Shatil, which trains various grassroots-based organizations to effectively engage in civic society. I learned of NIF’s unshakable commitment to an Israel that espouses social and economic justice, religious pluralism and respect towards human rights.
More importantly, I found friends. I found a community. I found a home. I stopped flight and chose fight. I am now a regular attendee of NIF events and currently serve as a member of the New Generations Steering Committee. This summer, I marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade with fellow NIF members, along with some our friends from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA. We walked under the banners of freedom, democracy, justice and peace.
As a result of all this activity, I have found that living in the solution makes for a better outlook on life. I also have found a new way to articulate my relationship to Israel. I am no longer angry to the point of ambivalence. I now feel empowered to do something about it.
And that, dear reader, is where you come in. I know you might feel that the Jewish organizations of old have failed you in trying to spare you of Israel’s gritty characteristics and thus feel a reluctance to become engaged with anything that has to do with that small country over yonder. I know you might feel slighted, possibly even betrayed. I know I did.
But I guarantee you this: if you join us and fight the good fight, you will feel so much better about your relationship to Israel, and the Jewish community at large. You’ll begin to imagine a day where peace and justice will flow through the Holy Land like a mighty stream. You’ll be able to idealize Israel again, though not through the twisted gaze of denial, but by the limitless potential you’ll witness though the work done for a brighter tomorrow.
That is your challenge. Don’t let Israel fail you. Join us.
Aaron Werschulz is a member of the New Generations Steering Committee in New York.