Israel Doesn’t Belong To Me Just Because I am Jewish
The day after I made Aliyah — landing in Tel Aviv as an Israeli citizen, I woke up with the stomach flu. The welcome party my friends had planned at one of our favorite bars in Jerusalem was cancelled and I spent my first two days as an Israeli with my head in my friend’s toilet. My body was literally rejecting my new found citizenship — attempting to expel Zionism from my gut until all that remained was pale yellow stomach acid and a sizable check from the Israeli government.
My mind on the other hand, took much longer to come to terms with the toxicity of Zionism. I lived in Israel for four years, and then back in California for another few before I ended up rejecting it entirely — ridding it from my life like I had rid the kosher El Al dinner from my stomach on my first day as an Israeli.
I grew up Jewish, more than Jew-ish but not by much. Attempting to leave behind the trauma they experienced during the Holocaust, my grandparents raised my Dad without religion and with a Christmas tree. But being culturally Jewish was important to my mother and subsequently my stepmother who converted when she married my father; my siblings and I went to Hebrew school, were Bar/Bat Mitzvah-ed and missed school for high holiday services — where my Dad prayed to a God he admittedly didn’t believe in and I hid in the back classrooms hooking up with boys from my Hebrew school class.
I was much more successful with Jewish boys than I was with boys at my high school in La Canada — a rich, conservative town outside of Los Angeles where being Jewish was almost as rare as not being white. And while I struggled to fit in with a group of friends at school, my Jewish friends felt like family. So I spent every summer at Jewish camp and every weekend escaping my small town to meet up with my camp friends for parties at the house of whoever's parents were out of town. And then, as an extreme commitment to this escapism, I moved to Israel after college. By that point, the only world I felt comfortable in was one where everyone sorta looked like me, definitely thought like me, and had trouble digesting complex dairy like me.
When I was 23 years old, after having spent close to two years of my life already living in Israel, I became a citizen. I took a fairly generous bribe stipend from the Israeli government and moved to Jerusalem. I became fluent in Hebrew, built a large community of Israeli and American expat friends, and worked in Jewish education as a teacher, tour guide, and representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel — the largest Jewish non-profit in the world whose goal is to breed more Jews like me; Jews that feel an “unbreakable bond to one another and to Israel”. I also ran to stairwells and bomb shelters when rocket sirens blared during escalated periods of violence between Israel and Gaza. I lived in Jerusalem for four years, where ~40% of the population is Arab, and not once did I have an actual conversation with a Palestinian. Not once did I have a conversation with someone who’s narrative I was actively dismissing as I taught Israeli and Zionist history to American Jewish students. I was taught at Jewish camp and during my time in Israel that the Jewish and Israeli narrative was right and the Palestinian narrative was wrong. More than that, I was taught how to negate the claims that the Pro-Palestinian community would make: “They voluntarily left their homes in 1947.” “Palestinian was never a nationality”. “They just want to kill us.”
And I never questioned it — because why would I? Everyone I talked to, everyone I slept with, everyone I cared to know; carried lactaid pills in their back pockets and were taught the very same things.
It wasn’t until I had been back in the states for a year, working in Israel advocacy for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco that I, for the first time, actually considered that I may not have been told the whole story, that maybe I was, dare I say it — wrong; actually considered that Israel didn’t just belong to me because I was Jewish; considered that being a victim of racism and genocide in the past shouldn’t excuse perpetuating racism and apartheid in the present.
It was part of my job to attend Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and other pro-Palestinian events, to see what sort of “lies” they were spreading. Attending those meetings as a spy from the pro-Israel camp was the first time I had ever stepped outside of my own community. And I finally saw outside of myself, finally engaged with people who disagreed with me, and finally realized that the Jewish community, once the victim of extreme propaganda, were now the ones disseminating it.
I’m ashamed that it took me so long to get there.
Conservative Zionists will read this and say I’m a self hating Jew. Some Israelis (and I do only mean some, as it is important to note that MANY Israelis oppose the racist, violent, colonialist actions of their right wing government) will read this and say I don’t get it. That I didn’t live through an Intifada, didn’t serve in the IDF, that I can’t possibly understand. And maybe they’re right. But have modern Zionists and Israelis ever lived under occupation? Had their movements restricted? Their access to healthcare, education, and clean water controlled by a country that kicked (and continues to kick, see: Sheikh Jarrah) their families out of their ancestral homes and refuses to recognize their peoplehood?
What’s crazy about that comparison is that we should understand. Jews in Israel and the diaspora alike cite the Holocaust as an important reason for the need for a Jewish state. Almost every Israeli student goes on a March of the Living trip to Poland to study the history of the Holocaust — I even led a few trips for American Jews myself. We understand persecution. But only when we are the victims, not when we are the perpetrators. And over the past year I’ve seen my fellow American Jews march at Black Lives Matter protests, educate themselves on dismantling the system of white supremacy that they have benefited from, and speak out against police brutality. But this same community has remained fairly quiet while Palestinians are beaten on the streets of Jerusalem for protesting the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah. Quiet while Israeli Police Forces raid the Al Aqsa mosque, shooting Palestinians with rubber bullets as they pray during the holy month of Ramadan. Quiet while Israeli air strikes kill over 25 Palestinians in Gaza — many of them children, in just 24 hours. Where’s the outrage when the police are Israelis? When the bodies are Palestinian? Where’s the recognition of Jewish supremacy in Israel?
And the few posts, tweets, and comments of recognition that I have seen are often immediately followed by worry over how this will impact the Jewish community. “What if this leads to an increase in anti-Semitism?”. So quick to center the Jewish experience. So quick to shift the focus from Palestinian lives to Jewish lives.
I no longer work in the Jewish community, I only celebrate holidays if my parents host a Seder or my sister makes latkes, and I date mostly non-Jews these days (hoping my luck has improved since high school). But most of my friends are still Jewish and so much of my personality is steeped in my Jewish background. I can’t even talk about the weather without finding someway to mention that I’m of a desert people and can’t deal with humidity.
I can’t escape the community I’ve lived in for over 30 years, and I don’t entirely want to. But I am mad at it. Because wouldn’t I be a better person, a better ally — and wouldn’t the world be a better place — if instead of being taught to prioritize and cherish our connection to the people that look and think like us we were taught to respect the experiences and history of those that are different from us? Wouldn’t we be better people if we cared more about protecting human life, Palestinian lives — than we do about protecting the idea that Israel belongs to us just because we are Jewish?
I am mad at it because Jews, of all people, should fucking know better.