Digging Deeper This Thanksgiving

I was never a huge fan of Thanksgiving. I didn’t like the tradition my family — and I’m sure many families had — of going around and saying all the things they were thankful for. It just felt cheesy to me. But I guess watching football and eating food was a much better way to spend a Thursday than being at school. Now I am on a gap year in Israel (Young Judaea Year Course) and my feelings toward Thanksgiving have changed. Articulating what you’re thankful for, what you’re happy to have or be a part of, is a great thing. It is a time to appreciate everything that we usually don’t have time — by choice or by consequence — to say we are thankful for.

With everything we have, with everything we are grateful for — like my mom’s pumpkin pie — we still ought to strive for better. Even the mundane things, we ought to push towards excellence. There is no point in being stationary — or, as I like to think of it: not moving forward.

I am thankful for many things, but right now I want to dedicate some time to things that we should be eternally grateful and thankful for, yet these things do not get enough credit ever, and especially during Thanksgiving.

I am thankful for my family and for living in the Jewish community outside of Israel. I am thankful that my family understood the value of taking a gap year in Israel. I am thankful for having been taught the Jewish values from a very young age through my school, my synagogue, and through my family. These values have helped mold me into the person that I am today. I am thankful for having two homes- one in the US and one in Israel. I am thankful for having been raised in the Diaspora, as it has given me a certain appreciation for both secular and Jewish values.

Living in the Diaspora, as great as it is, comes with important responsibilities. We must remain cognizant of how Jewish groups act and if they accurately represent the Jewish people. We cannot let a small sect of individuals set the tone for how the world sees the Jewish narrative and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Jews, we must hold accountable organizations, both Jewish and otherwise, to make sure that they are being factual and just.

More than anything, I am thankful to be an American. I am thankful to be a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world. A nation that strives and quibbles about how to best be moral and fair. I am thankful that America’s democracy has fostered a political system where if a certain group of citizens is passionate and dedicated enough about an issue, they can change the status quo. I am thankful that Israel is not just a country in Israel, but is also an issue which almost every public servant-regardless of political leaning- sees the upside of pursuing pro-Israel policies.

“As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.” I am thankful not only that President Obama said this, but that his administration and our country have a record that backs up that quote. As of 2012, the US gives around $3.7 billion of military aid to Israel every year. The US is also the only country to consistently stand with Israel at the UN, always opposing motions that vilify or place unnecessary blame on Israel.

As Americans, we have a duty to bring our case to the American public and to our representatives in a way that is accurate, fair, and passionate. We need to hold our leaders accountable when they betray American values. We need to ask more of our leaders,to support Israel and want what is best for Israel, and that they cultivate a climate which will breed a better Israel.

I am thankful that Israel not only exists, but is a thriving western democracy. I am thankful that Israel is committed to helping Jews everywhere. I am thankful that the Jewish people have a land to call their own. I am thankful of the IDF, which gives the Jewish democratic nation capabilities to defend itself. I am thankful that there is a democratic and Jewish state, where values of Judaism are not only studied in Jewish learning institutions, but are acted on by the government.

Israel — like any country — is not perfect. They are an occupying power, whether by design or by circumstance — and this is a crucial fact that we must recognize, as tough as it might be to swallow. We must see that Israel has problems outside the conflict with the Palestinian people such as poverty, intra-Jewish tensions, high cost of living, hunger, and violence against women. We need to come to grips with the idea that it is not just okay but good to do the hard thing and critique Israel. Not because we want to vilify Israel, but in order to make Israel a better country, we must call it out on its problems. We need to understand that our being critical of Israel will not jeopardize its standing in the world, but will actually bring Israel to become a better and more polished country.

I don’t have a drop-the-mic type of conclusion or summary. Maybe it is because I am not intelligent enough, but I think it is because being thankful is simple, so necessary, and that doing the hard thing by constructively criticizing your countries and community is a very onerous task, and that our work is unfinished, much like this article. I guess that is what I am thankful for, being able to have this work, being able to make change and to have these opportunities.

About the Author
Brett L. Kleiman is currently a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where he studies political science and international relations. He is a research intern at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and is also the president of the Emory Democrats. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Brett attended The Robert M Beren Academy for 12 years. From September 2015 to June 2016 Brett lived in Israel through Young Judaea's gap year program, Year Course. Brett is interested in Israel, America, diplomacy, podcasts, Game of Thrones, The Wire, politics, reading, sports, and peace.