Barack Mandela
Human Rights Attorney

Dr. Strange: Anatomy of a Confused Jewish Identity

Barack Mandela in the Armored Division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). (From Mr. Mandela’s personal collection)

Sometimes I feel ‘Jewish’. Sometimes I feel ‘non-Jewish’. Other times I feel extremely confused, weird, odd, and strange. I sometimes seriously refer to myself as ‘Dr. Strange’.

My current life has powerful Jewish themes; however, I often obsessively flee from Judaism. I once lived in Israel for nearly six years, however, I currently live in America.

When I first converted to Judaism in 1995, I felt 100 percent certain about my Jewish decision. My life plan was to convert, then move to Israel, and perhaps become a Jewish politician like Benjamin Netanyahu.

(In fact, after my conversion, I went around calling myself ‘Black Bibi’—using Netanyahu’s famous nickname.)

My initial goal of moving to Israel was delayed when I was offered a job as special assistant to Governor Pete Wilson of California in 1997. Although my heart was in Israel, I decided to work for the governor for nearly two years as a spokesperson.

Finally, in early 2000, I moved to Israel where I entered rabbinical school at Aish HaTorah College (yeshiva) in Jerusalem. I also became an intern in the office of Mayor Ehud Olmert and Jerusalem spokesperson, Haggai Elias.

While I was studying to become a Jewish rabbi, I was joyful, happy, content, and thrilled to be living the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. It was a dream come true. At the time, my life plan was to become a rabbi, get married, and raise Jewish children in Israel. My life was organized into a strategic plan. I had a strong sense of direction and purpose.

However, my Jewish life exploded when I decided to abandon yeshiva and enter the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It was Mayor Olmert who suggested I enlist in the Israeli military. During my time in the Israeli army, I became less religious, less observant, and more secular in my worldview.

Before I entered the IDF, I viewed Israel as a holy “Jewish state” given by God to the Jewish people. However, after my military service, I viewed Israel as a “state of all its citizens” and a “multicultural secular state”.

After all, many of my good friends in the IDF were not Jewish. In my tank unit, for example, there were members of the Druze ethnicity. Also, there were members of the LGBTQ community in the army. Moreover, there were Bedouin Arabs serving with me in the Israeli army. Also, many of the Russian soldiers were born-again Christians. So, while in the IDF, I came to see Israel as a diverse society and a melting pot of many groups.

My experiences in the IDF raise various questions about my so-called Jewish identity:

  • Am I still a convert to the Jewish religion?
  • Am I Jewish? Am I a Jew?
  • Am I a member of the Jewish people?
  • Although I am a citizen of Israel, am I a Zionist or non-Zionist or anti-Zionist?
  • What is my rightful place in the big picture of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel?

As I write this article, I am listening to religious Jewish music by singer, Yaakov Shwekey. The music triggers a ‘loving feeling’ towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I ‘feel’ Jewish. I ‘feel’ like a member of the Jewish people. I ‘feel’ a connection to the Land of Israel.

However, perhaps all my so-called Jewish feelings are part of a mental delusion and spiritual hallucination caused by the extreme stress of serving as a combat soldier in the Israeli army. Perhaps I am a ‘Jewish zombie’ marching like a vampire through a dark, twisted fantasy.

In the end, perhaps my Jewish journey has left me ‘strange’ and ‘weird’ and ‘eccentric’. Welcome to my disturbed inner world. If Steven Spielberg makes a movie about my life, it should be called:  Dr. Strange: Anatomy of a Confused Jewish Identity.

About the Author
Licensed Attorney. I earned a Doctor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1997). I earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Riverside (1994). I was an international student at the University of Costa Rica Faculty of Law (1991-1992) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law (Summer 1996). I am a military veteran of the United States Air Force, United States Army, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I am a laureate of the National Defense Service Medal from the Pentagon (2006). I am a financial donor to following: Harvard Law, Yale Law, Stanford Law, Berkeley Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, UC Davis Law, Columbine High School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Viewpoint School, Beverly Hills High School, Eton College in the United Kingdom, Special Olympics, Children's Defense Fund, Obama Foundation, Clinton Foundation, Barbra Streisand Foundation, Princeton University, Florida A&M, Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the British Red Cross. I am former special assistant and staff attorney to Governor Pete Wilson of California. I was public affairs assistant to US Senator Barbara Boxer and Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem and Jerusalem spokesperson Haggai Elias.
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