Ryan Harrison Lee

Reassessing Israel’s Personal Significance in a Time of War

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Israel, plenty of people, including me, have speculated about and analyzed the geopolitics of the situation.  All people who have access to a 24-hour cable news network have been watching the horrific, gut-wrenching images flashing across their screens.  Reminiscent of other war zones around the world, most recently Ukraine, these images stir deep reactions from all caring people.

I do not feel the need, however, to lend my critical or analytical point-of-view to the conversation.  Instead, I would like to share what Israel means to me as a Jewish man.

When I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport during my Birthright trip in January 2012, I saw Tel Aviv out the window.  The blue sky contrasted the sandy color of the buildings.  I remember the sensation of feeling that I had come home, even though I had never been there before.

The next 10 days brought serious, sometimes subconscious introspection.  It was as if my internal compass was reorienting itself.  Whether it was having my bar mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem, receiving my Hebrew name in Tel Aviv, sleeping in a Bedouin tent, watching the sunrise over Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, or standing at the Gaza border, I felt connected to the land in a way that I had never felt previously.  Prior to that, I had always developed deep connections with other people, but hardly ever with places.  Israel was different.

When I got home to the United States, I thought about my own prejudices.  Before Birthright, I had thought that Israel was just another danger zone.  Not until I stood on the land itself did I feel something peculiar.  For the first time in my life, I knew that I would be willing to die for a cause, namely the security of Israel, which made me see that I desperately wanted to live for it.

I read book after book about Judaism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, from all perspectives and from across the political spectrum.  I devoured books like My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit; The Case for Israel, by Alan Dershowitz; A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz; and Like Dreamers, by Yossi Klein Halevi, among countless others.  While I knew that Israel certainly was not perfect, it was mine.  It belonged to me, just as it belonged to every Jew in the world.  Consequently, it was my responsibility to protect it against its enemies, which were also the enemies of the Jewish people.  I immediately recognized that Israel was the only Jewish state in the world, and no matter its flaws, it must continue to exist.

In the intervening eleven years, my connection to the Land of Israel has deepened and widened.  Any time that Israel is attacked, I feel personally violated.  Any affront against Israel is an affront against the Jewish people as a whole, as Israel is the living embodiment of the Jewish people.

I am not Jewish because of Israel.

Rather, I can be Jewish openly and freely thanks to Israel.

About the Author
Ryan Harrison Lee is an aspiring diplomat who is currently teaching Spanish, English, History, and Government at a private school outside of Washington, DC.
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