As a Jew…

Kobe Port Festival. (courtesy)

When I have to leave my synagogue because its progressive agenda includes distancing from Israel, I fear feeling something I thought I was done with once I got to the United States.

Unlike my parents I never knew what it felt to belong to a country, to have a native language, a national anthem, a passport. Until her Iraq and his Egypt took their passports away. Jew became our nationality. I never had any other.

Born in India but not Indian, Japan was home for twenty years until immigration to the USA. No, it was not possible to be naturalized by Japan.

Dad tried to soften our statelessness by claiming we belonged to a respectable tribe of “Wandering Jews,” but without a passport we couldn’t even wander, we were stuck. And when “Man Without A Country” was recited in my international missionary school, it was one of those times I wanted to disappear under my desk in shame.

Like the time Japanese authorities came to our home asking, “When do you plan to leave?” “Ask Nasser” my father finally snapped. They didn’t understand how a person could have a passport one day and not the next. “What happened weren’t you born there?”

My father was not only born in Egypt, so were his ancestors as far back as his Egyptian family on his father’s side could go. The Wahbas were fellahin from Mitghram, not Sephardic newcomers from the Spanish Inquisition who found their way to Alexandria via Turkey and Syria and Morocco, like the Sabans on his mother’s side. He was a proud Egyptian Jew till the day he died. Despite being kicked out, Nasser could not erase our history.

Same for my mother, Jews in Iraq went back 3,000 years. “By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion…” She had to flee her native land after Baghdad became too dangerous for Jews.

Like Egypt, Iraq is Jew-Free today. And the exodus was harsh for the close to a million Jews who had to flee in the 1950s. No one just “leaves” deeply rooted lands with nothing. Unless you call one suitcase of clothes something.

Our wait for America was long — there was no quota for Egyptians (which we were classified as despite Egypt’s rejection), those 20 years in Japan.

People always ask why didn’t we just go to Israel instead of remaining Stateless?Why did we wait twenty years for the United States instead of making Aliyah?

We could have joined our large recently completely pauperized relatives, almost our entire extended families, from both Egypt and Iraq, struggling to survive in the maabarot.

I often think we “should” have made Aliyah. But there were reasons. Not only was the adrenaline fueled terror of the Farhud with the screams and the fear haunt my mother, she had her pragmatic reasons. Money, we had no money, and Israel had no money. “What would your father do there (for work)?” Dad was a spiritual man, he felt differently, God would provide. Mom would have none of that. If her husband couldn’t provide, and Israel couldn’t provide, she was not definitely going to live in “that part of the world” ever again. She knew too much.

In Japan I wore my Magain Davide like a flag and waited for “America,” the other “Promised Land” the one in a much better neighborhood.

I studied American. Everything American, the accent, the styles, the music. I was ready when we got our visas. Not only would be an American citizen, I would never feel stateless again.

I didn’t expect the “don’t -ask- don’t -tell” Anti-Semitism sometimes actually articulated, “why do you have to wear a Jewish star?” I didn’t expect Zionism to turn into a dirty word. I never expected to see Jews in kippot and Hasidic garb beaten up in the streets of New York. And I never expected the Islamic Jew/Israel-hatred my family fled sound sane to too many.

Today, Anti-Zionism has spread to where it has become normalized in the Left and growing in universities. I can’t march in women’s marches infiltrated by anti-Israel organizers. I am progressive Jew who had to leave her Reform synagogue. It’s a drag.

Even if the streets remain safe enough for assimilated Jews who don’t “look Jewish,” how much longer will it feel/be safe for those of us Zionists who identify with Israel to thrive in the USA?

For liberated Jews there can be no difference between fighting anti- Semitism and fighting Anti-Zionism. Without the strongest link between the United States and our Zionist dream come true Israel, we American Jews may have US passports but we will be deeply diminished. We will be fighting feeling stateless and wondering, what happened?

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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