I remember the moment like it occurred yesterday. It was my sophomore year of high school and I had begun to develop a deep passion for Israel and a desire to become the next-best Israel advocate in my entire school. My friend, in his senior year, had just informed me, a young and aspiring pro-Israel student, that he could not attend the upcoming national AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, and that he wished for me to take his place at the conference — as one of four student delegates representing our high school. “This was it!” I recall telling myself in sheer excitement. It was the moment that I had dreamed of, and I was simply elated that my time had come long before I had ever imagined. Moreover, I was convinced that I was well on my way to the next stage in my Israel advocacy efforts — both in my community and in the larger world.
The core message that was being perpetuated at the Conference could likely be summed up as follows: I had an obligation to support Israel because it is the only Western-style democracy in the volatile Middle East and Israel, as this tiny country, is a world-leader when it came to the fields of medicine, technological advances, and has helped make the world a much better place in a countless number of ways. Additionally of course, we, as American Jews had to appreciate the “unbreakable bond” and alliance that exists between Israel and the US and do everything in our power as Jews to keep that bond growing and flourishing.
I began to absorb all of the relevant information that I was hearing and through all of the knowledge that I had amassed, I made it my mission to spread these messages to people who I was sure would one day attack me for my views. Every sound bite I heard, and every amazing point made was another tool I could use when I would be faced with this future and inevitable challenge. What started out as a mere hobby quickly transformed into what I had decided would be a lifelong duty to spread the truth to all of those people who viciously attack and make unjust accusations about Israel–that I believed were all ill-conceived at best and flat out lies at worst.
A couple of years later, upon completing my high school graduation, I found myself aboard a flight to study for the coming year in the place I had always called home. While studying full time as a student in yeshiva immersed in my Jewish studies in Jerusalem, I also took part in a year-long extracurricular fellowship run by the LAVI movement called ATID that seemed to be an alternative Israel advocacy group and promised to offer a “unique” experience that would be unlike anything that we as a group of Modern-Orthodox Jewish teens had encountered back in here in the States.
I knew this was going to be a much different experience as the LAVI staff had told us that we would be hearing from a wide range of speakers from “all across the spectrum” that included both Palestinian and Israeli activists, as well as both imams and rabbis–both of whom came from the West Bank and actually had much more in common in terms of their beliefs than one would ever imagine. Most notably, they were both extraordinarily critical of the two-state solution citing that it would be detrimental for both Jews and Palestinians alike to forcefully segregate the two indigenous populations from one another and would never truly amount to a real vision of peaceful co-existence.
But the key message that was impressed upon me by the speakers was an idea relating to Jewish identity and how both Jews and Palestinians viewed this notion respectively. The Palestinians we heard from admitted to us that far too many of their people genuinely —-and wrongfully– believe that many Jews who live in Israel are nothing more than a group of white European colonizers who stole their land a mere hundred years ago. While many Jews may call this blatant anti-Semitism (and I previously would have as well), the rabbi on my program, Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen, explained that this was not necessarily a result of anti-Semitism per say but actually how many Palestinians experience Israelis based on internal issues that the Jewish world is struggling with.
He went on to explain that there exists within the Jewish people today an identity crisis that leads many Jews to view themselves as “white people with a Jewish religion” and representatives of western civilization in the Middle East rather than as a Semitic people indigenous to the region. After hearing this, I began to consider the notion that for much of American Jewry, there exists this deep yearning and desire to be viewed as “white” or “American” first and then perhaps as being “Jewish” as a sort of secondary status. Recognizing the disconnect between this phenomenon and how I grew up understanding Jewish history, I started to feel that it was our job as Jews, as my rabbi put it to “decolonize” our identities.
Initially, I remember sitting there in that board-room on a late Friday afternoon struggling to understand the best way to tackle this identity dilemma that existed within the Jewish world. I came around to really consider some of these difficult questions that were being posed to me. What was I doing to combat these flawed notions that were being ascribed to my identity as a Jew? What was I as an individual, and we as a greater Jewish community, doing to fight this claim that we are merely a group of Western colonialist or, more specifically, just a group of European and American Jews who all of a sudden decided to conquer this arbitrary piece of land a mere hundred years ago? It soon became clear that we as a Jewish people needed to re-affirm our claims of historic indigeneity to the region and be sure to understand that being Jewish didn’t solely affect our religious views in terms of ritual practice but also in terms of our national aspirations as well.
This idea of decolonization also manifests itself in the principles and the values that we are teaching the next generation of American Jewish leaders, specifically in how we define success in this day and age. For example, growing up in a competitive academic and financial environment here in the US there is a much greater pressure to fit into a certain mold, and say pursue a career in one of a few areas or disciplines. Naturally, this limits the creative efforts of the younger generation to decide their future life paths on their own, while creating a depiction and equating success to mean living a life characterized by affluence and luxury. Far too much focus and attention is placed upon the accumulation of wealth and one’s socio-economic status in our society.
And quite frankly, it is disheartening to see that often times, this reasoning is the primary and motivating factor that leads students to choose their respective careers. It’s interesting to note that when Americans say that a person is successful, they generally mean that the individual makes a nice salary. But when many Israelis — especially those consciously living Jewish history – refer to someone as matzliah (successful), the connotation is more that the person has found and is living his purpose in life. The last time I checked, economic-status and accruing a mass fortune are not the end-all be-all behind what it means to live a genuine, Jewish life rooted in the teachings of our holy Torah. For starters, to measure one’s success as a Jew, perhaps we can begin by ensuring that we know the story of our people, the teachings of our Prophets and Sages, and by making a committed effort to learn from the Torah’s infinite depth and knowledge and striving to adhere to the guidelines and Halachot which have been a part of our over 3,000-year-old tradition.
Furthermore, contrary perhaps to what many American Jews believe (myself once included), just because one annually attends a Policy Conference which lobbies for the funding of billions of dollars of foreign aid every year to Israel, this does not prove nor serves as a benchmark of how “Zionist” one is or how committed they are to the State Israel. Aside from getting into the legitimate discussion that needs to be had if Israel actually needs this exorbitant amount of aid–and whether it is truly benefiting the country in the long term or in fact leading to more foreign influence and dependency– the main question that was prompted for me to deeply consider and which I challenge the broader American Jewish community to consider is as follows: Are we actively doing the most we can in order to both personally and publicly identify as being a people and a nation first and foremost who are indigenous to the Middle East or are we significantly lacking in this regard? For if we ourselves cannot stand up and emphatically identify our roots and origins to the region and internalize the reality that we are an indigenous people who have returned home after nearly 2,000 years of being scattered in the Diaspora, how can we ever possibly expect our neighbors to think or believe otherwise?
Reclaiming our indigineity does necessarily mean that American and Western Jewry must begin to make aliyah en-masse, however, it does mean we should be making a greater effort to re-focus or attention to re-examining our roots and heritage in Israel, our unbroken and ancient tradition there, and genuinely exploring the commonalities rather than the differences that actually unites Israel with her neighbors in the broader Middle East. This entire notion of decolonization which was admittedly at first foreign to me, made complete sense by the end of the year. It was more than just an idea or some distant concept; it was a personal paradigm shift that had completely altered the lens through which I has previously viewed the conflict.
Building off this point of identity enabled me to gain greater insight into another great question that I spent much time re-evaluating and asking myself throughout my time on the program: That is why did I truly support the State of Israel? No longer were those cliche sound-bites going to be enough to satisfy me as I had to justify to the world why Israel was such an amazing country. I was forced to reassess the very notion of why I so ardently supported this country with such passion and vigor and realized that maybe, just maybe, the primary reason for my support was all stemming from the wrong places. It was time to re-focus my attention and identify that the reason I am “pro-Israel” was not because of all of the its great technologies, medical advances, or even because Israel is claimed to have the “most moral military in the world”. All of that is incredible but did not lie at the foundation of why I loved this country the amount I did.
The essential reason for my love of Israel is because this is where my people came from and it is where the future of my people belongs. It was the where the story of my people began with Abraham over 3,000 years ago, and it is where the future of my people is unfolding before our very eyes. It was the birthplace of our nationhood and the epicenter that Jews from across the world have drawn their spiritual fervor from throughout the past two millennia. Essentially, it is not a matter of all of the accomplishments and feats that have been achieved, but rather of the importance and significance of a nation who has and will continue to call this place home. And although I may have already known all of this on some sort of external and philosophical level, I don’t believe that up until this transformative learning experience I had a year ago, I could honestly say that this message was truly internalized. So as I look back today, I can stand here and say that the way I relate to my homeland will simply never be the same.