Sarah Sultman
Sarah Sultman

For the first time in my life, I am struggling with my relationship with Israel

New arrivals: Olim at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport this year (Credit: Yonit Schiller via Jewish News)
New arrivals: Olim at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport this year (Credit: Yonit Schiller via Jewish News)

For the first time in my life, I am struggling with my relationship with Israel.

It has always been rock solid.

I have been unequivocal in my love, support, admiration and pride for my homeland since I can remember. I’d go so far as to say it is in my DNA and that imprint has been built over four decades of education and visits to the country I think of my second but also in many ways, psychologically, my first home.

I have always believed that there is a symbiotic relationship between Israel and the diaspora.

That we support each other.

That we need Israel as our homeland, to tether us to our people, to connect us to 4000 years of history, and Israel looks to us for support; not just financial, through business but also through welfare and charity.

We are asked time and again to give money to Israeli causes despite the myriad of causes that need help here in London/UK and we do so with generosity, because we care. Diaspora Jewry – certainly in the UK, play an important if not crucial role in advocacy; from the exposing of Jeremy Corbyn and the left wings anti Israel obsession, to the fight against the ever growing BDS movement; lobbying MPs, building trade relations,  and constantly defending Israel’s right to exist which, despite plenty of debate and the counter argument that Jew hating is not the same as Israel hating, I fully subscribe to the notion that they are one and the same thing .

To quote Lord Rabbi Sacks: ‘There is and only ever has been one Jewish state, tiny and vulnerable though it is and always was. That is why Anti-Zionism, denying Jews the right to their one and only collective home by misrepresenting Judaism, is the new antisemitism, every bit as virulent and dangerous as the old’.

We send our children to universities, worldly seats of education, hoping that they are prepared to counter the narrative that calls for their non-existence.

We do that knowing that their home is there for them should they need it, and for many ,this results in their choosing to leave their diaspora homes and make aliya.

But Covid is eroding that relationship and I cannot understand the way Israel is behaving.

For the very first time in my life I am angry with Israel.

There I have said it.

I am angry with the country that I have only ever loved and it hurts. Because, the message I am receiving is ‘You don’t live here, so you don’t quite belong’.

This is compounded when I see images of Miss Universe – how do they qualify to go to Israel and I don’t?

How is it possible that beauty queens should be allowed on a plane and welcomed, but the Jews that constantly support, fight for, advocate, are not.

When Covid started and the world was in lockdown no one flew anywhere and that was ok. I could deal with that. But then the summer of 2021 came around and my family could travel to Greece, Spain, Italy, Dubai – how many countries should I list – but not Israel. Tour was cancelled for a second year, my 16 year old daughter was due to go on it, and this is relevant.

Tour is deemed a right of passage. For some it is a first taste of independence , their first trip away  from their families, for others it is simply a holiday but for many it is the beginning of a life long bond that ties them to the State of Israel. Tour has education and connection  at its heart. It is experiential and for many teens it shapes their futures. Tour may lead to a gap year in Israel, to advocacy on campus, possibly to aliya or a diaspora supporter. It is the birthplace for many of our teens of their Jewish and Zionist identity.

So my 16 year old could happily laze by a pool in Mallorca instead – a first world problem you might think, but now she is considering whether she goes on a gap year to Israel or travels elsewhere. And when she is challenged on her campus will she be able to fight back with articulate passion and vigour  for a country she doesn’t actually know . There are unforeseen consequences.

We send our children to Jewish schools where trips to Israel are a part of the curriculum. Yes, they are fun, but like tour they have purpose. When those trips are cancelled, as they have all been, there are ripple effects. We are potentially bringing up a mini generation of children that will have lost their connectivity – and in the same way people are not coming back to shul, why should we assume that they will learn or resume their Zionisim.

And the message from Israel has not been one of apology or empathy for us diaspora Jews, which might alleviate some of the hurt and anger we feel. Instead it has almost been one full of superiority and daring. We dare you to try and come to our country – here are the hoops we have in place for you to jump through…. I have met countless people my parents age in their 70s, who, determined to get to Israel have been reduced to tears as they’ve have to provide marriage certificates, death certificates and family trees. They have had to learn to navigate websites and attach documents and perhaps most ridiculous, they have had to find someone at the embassy who somebody else knows that might be able to help them – ontop of the pcrs, or vaccine proofs that every other normal country requires. I cannot think of a single other embassy that I have had to contact in order to understand the covid rules and to try and gain some sort of connection or ‘protectzia’ to gain entry.  Israel seems to change its rules like the wind. One minute a group of 18 year olds are off on their gap year, the next, if they are not at the airport within 24 hours, they aren’t.

I understand that Israel is covid conscious,  that it seeks to be a world leader in its vaccination programme but I am struggling to understand why my children can go all over the world but not to Israel. On the Israeli embassy website it states clearly that ‘shivas, funerals and weddings’ are not reason to gain entry, but we Jews continue to exist precisely because of these rites of passage. We celebrate together and we mourn together and this has bound us to each other since the beginning of time. So when my children miss their cousins barmitzvah this presents a bigger problem than missing a party.

These are our childrens’ formative years – it is where memories and connections are shaped and these connections last well into their adult futures. Perhaps if Israel explained its logic coherently, perhaps if it was apologetic, empathetic or sympathetic I might feel differently. When I spoke to my Israeli friend, she was surprised by the strength of my feelings.

She maintains that Israel has a right to protect its people first and foremost, but I cannot help but feel that by doing this Israel is making a clear distinction between Israelis and Jews.  And this perhaps is the crux of the issue. Is Israel only for Israelis or is Israel the Jewish homeland for Jews? And if it is both, as I believe it is – then Israel needs  a  serious change in its thinking and action towards us in the diaspora, because if it doesn’t, that symbiosis will be severed and to what unforeseen consequences .

About the Author
Sarah Sultman is the cofounder of Gesher School and an active member of the Mill Hill Jewish Community. She writes in a personal capacity as a life long member of Bnei Akiva, supporter of the UJIA and mother of three children who she desperately wants to hand the love of Israel baton over to.
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