Shari Eshet
Not giving up yet

The star spangled banner and the Jews

What more can I say about the Jewish state bill that the Prime Minister of Israel is determined to pass, that hasn’t been said already. Except to say that if that happens, this will no longer be the Israel that I signed up for when I moved here 34 years ago. Aliyah for me meant that I would live in a democratic and Jewish state. A state on the land of my forefathers and foremothers. The land that they left 2000 years ago and returned  67 years ago to built a country, to build a nation. The land of the Jewish people dedicated to Jewish democratic values, a nation that was established as a haven for persecuted Jews, and for Jews seeking to live in their homeland.

But it was also clear, at least to me, that there were non-Jews living in the Land of Israel, indigenous people or at least indigenous for the last 800 years and that they too were citizens, full citizens, and equal citizens. In fact, it never occurred to me that they were not. Growing up as a Jew in the Diaspora, I understood what it meant to be a minority. I understood it at an early age, when my neighbors had Christmas trees and I did not , and when that other holiday that coincides with Passover meant colorful egg hunts that I could not attend. As I matured, I understood that I lived in a Christian country and that despite being a member of the Tribe , I belonged to a very small minority. And as I grew older, I understood that not only Christmas trees and Easter eggs were not mine to call my own, but that I could not join their clubs, or marry their children, or live in their neighborhoods.

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized that not only was I part of a minority but there was another minority, the coloreds. How could I know? The coloreds were not allowed to live in my community. I knew no coloreds except for our gardener and our housekeeper (yes, I lived in the South where they were called the Help). At one point, I discovered that there was a six pm curfew and that they had to be “off the island” by then and that there were separate facilities for colored and white people. So was I white? Was I Jewish? Was I a minority? Was I equal? Growing up in the United States, in the segregated South during the civil rights movement, being  part of a minority was one of those life changing experiences that you never forget and that you tell your children about. It was an experience, that luckily for Jewish Israelis, they never experienced. Those born after 1948, in the Jewish homeland, were born free, born equal, born to rule. One of the reasons I made Aliyah was to feel the equality, feel that this too was my country. It is not easy to feel someone else’s pain, which is why we teach Holocaust studies here in Israel , take our children to Yad Vashem and send them to Poland. Never forget, we tell them. Always remember we were strangers, we were different, we were a minority, and we were persecuted.

So why is it that we are so willing to allow the others within our society to feel the pain of not belonging, of not being equal? I suppose it is hard to feel the other’s pain. But we have to try. I for one don’t want to live in a country again, where there are second class citizens. I already marched for civil rights. I don’t want to march again.


About the Author
Shari Eshet is the former director of NCJW's Israel Office, based in Jerusalem. Now a private consultant, she still works for the betterment of the State of Israel.
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