A couple of weeks ago, for Israel’s 70th anniversary, I was asked to reflect on what Israel means to me. Easy, I thought to myself. I grabbed my pen and began to brainstorm; Jerusalem, Israel, hummus, peace, white and blue. It was hard to stop — Hebrew, Judaism, the Galilee, my grandparents, Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah. But as I took a step back and read through my ideas I noticed a gaping hole. These collections of ideas were all physical in nature, and lacked to explain how I felt about Israel.
Being stubborn, I continued to search for the perfect algorithm to crack this question. After all, the Jewish state means so much more to me than international headlines or camel rides, and I knew that if I was to answer this question, I had to start with looking inward.
First, I thought of all the things about Israel that related to me as a person. When I speak, I do it loudly, and without regard to the judgment of others. When I eat, I prefer vegetables and black coffee to eggs and bacon. When I introduce myself, I must spell it out to people: “My name is Roee, like Joey but with R”. When asked about my birthplace, I am proud to say that I was born in in Israel’s capital, but grew up in one of the most multicultural cities in the Middle East, Haifa. To quote my wise sister, who eventually made Aliyah (moved to Israel) and became an officer in the IDF: “I am 100% Israeli, and 100% American”. No matter how far away I am from the sand of the Negev and the water of the Galilee, Israeli culture will stay a part of me forever.
Then I brainstormed bullet points about innovation. I had written about the next-generation Central Processing Unit that was developed by Intel in my hometown of Haifa, and about the USB thumb drive that is used globally today. In the field of agriculture, I wrote of Cherry Tomatoes, which use less water than the traditional tomato and are therefore a great crop for the Israeli desert. Drip irrigation, which was conceived and developed on a small Kibbutz in the south of Israel, was also a disruptive technology that changed irrigation systems across the globe. At the center of my technology-brainstorm, I had written down the name of the startup that to date has had over 1 million subscribers and has revolutionized web design. Interning for Wix.com in Tel Aviv was a true privilege because it gave me an opportunity to meet some of the most brilliant engineers, designers, and business people that Israel has to offer. This sub-list of technologies not only represents the ingenuity of the Israeli people, but also a message which the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, ingrained in my mind: “If you will it, it is no dream”.
The final piece of my story comes is the most important and most intangible asset: family. These are relationships that anchor me, teach me, nurture me, and make me proud to call Israel home. My older sister lives in Herziliya and studies human-computer interaction at the IDC; her couch is simultaneously the least comfortable and my favorite place to sleep on earth. My two sets of grandparents, who as they explore, read, and cook to their heart’s content continue to show me that age is nothing but a number. My great-grandfather, who passed away at the age of 103 last year after surviving both world wars, is the greatest inspiration. He reminds me to never give up. Finally, my cousins, my uncles and aunts, and my parents’ childhood friends, who when combined, give Israel an unparalleled sense of familiarity.
In search of more information about my personal connection to Israel, I turned to my friends for help. I asked them the same question that had been posed to me: “What does Israel mean to you?” The results I received were disruptive in their own right. One friend, a Jewish high-school student, responded by connecting with the land of Israel as the only place on earth where Hebrew was the mother tongue. Another chose to tie Israel to warfare, and talked to me about Israeli strategy and weaponry. Yet another friend talked about Israel being a second home for him — a Jew living in Diaspora — despite never having gone before. It was an incredible experience hearing these different narratives, particularly because of just how much they diverged from my original answer to that very question.
If Israel were merely a place, there would have been a uniform response among the sample group of my friends.The answers, however, were varied and numerous and that’s because I was missing a key piece of the puzzle. Israel isn’t just a country, it’s an expanse, a boundless idea with which billions have a relationship. My love for its culture, innovation, and people was something developed over time.
As Israel celebrates her 70th birthday, I wish for it the basics: wealth, health, and security. More importantly, I wish for it to continue to provide Jews around the world the chance to form a relationship with it, and for people the world over, be they Jewish or not, to continue to fall in love with this beautiful, complicated place I call home.