Ariella Cohen

What Does It Mean To Be Israeli?

Raw reflections of a new olah

What does it mean to be Israeli? Having a Teudat Zehut and an Israeli driver’s license? An Israeli bank account and health care card? I have those things. I got them after making aliyah six short weeks ago. But am I Israeli? Technically, yes. But am I? I keep asking myself this question. Being Israeli has a much deeper meaning than being American. Americans are Americans if they have citizenship. I am American. But am I also Israeli? I think being Israeli is more of a feeling than a physical reality. I’ve heard from multiple people over the past few days that almost every Israeli knows someone who was either killed, injured, or kidnapped thus far. Am I Israeli? I know many people who are currently serving, but am I Israeli if I don’t know anyone in these categories? 

My sister in law’s cousin is currently stationed in the Gaza region. He was saved by an open miracle over Shabbos as his entire unit was wiped out. Dozens of his friends were murdered at once, and he is still out there fighting for his country. This same sister in law also has two nephews serving right now. 

My brother in law’s siblings are on the line. 

One of my best friends has a brother in law and cousins on the line. 

Close family friends of mine have kids on the line. 

My neighbors from growing up are on the line.

My friend has multiple cousins who were called up to serve. 

My cousin is a Hatzalah volunteer.

I have tens of more distant cousins that I know were called up as well.  

But none of these people are my immediate siblings/parents/children. Many Jews refer to all other Jews as their brothers and sisters, especially in a time of crisis. But if someone that you only know through a picture gets murdered, does it feel the same as if G-d forbid that would happen to your blood brother/sister/parent/child? I don’t think so. Is the fear of losing a cousin the same as that of losing a parent/brother/sister/child? I don’t know.

So often in the past I’ve heard about awful terrorist attacks in Israel where Israelis were murdered that I did not know. I may have cried at the time, but do I remember the names of every single Israeli who was murdered by terrorists in recent years? Sadly not. For the family and friends of these individuals, they are never forgotten. They are missed every single day, especially during significant life events. 

I saw a video of a chayal in uniform hugging his parents as he was leaving them after having been called up to war. They all looked so proud, and nobody was crying. Maybe they cried later because they are human after all. The chayal was even smiling. Where do they get that strength from? To me, that one minute video really sums up what Israel is all about. These parents and their child knew that they may never see each other again, but protecting their country is more important than their personal desire to keep their family close. Is their pride really stronger than their fear?

Is my reality as a true empath ever going to allow me to have that pure trust in Hashem that these parents and their son showed? Even after decades of living in Israel? Are the two mutually exclusive? Am I Israeli if I don’t have that high level of resilience? 

Israelis are known to be resilient. They have to be. So many have buried their friends and family members over the past many decades after terrorist attacks. Are Israelis born with resilience, or does it only grow with difficult experiences? Do I want to be resilient? Do I want to be Israeli? I want to be Israeli, but I’m scared about what would be necessary for me to truly feel that status. Is being legally Israeli enough for me?

I feel a mixture of pride and disconnect. Pride for obvious reasons, and disconnect because am I Israeli? I keep thinking I’m fine, and then I start crying as soon as I open my mouth to verbalize anything related to the war. I have been crying a lot. Maybe I am Israeli.

While I certainly don’t feel totally safe, I feel guilty for living in a relatively safe area. I can’t possibly begin to understand the fear that gripped the hundreds or thousands of people who had terrorists enter their homes. Does my worry about this happening to someone else count for anything? 

Yes, I have been hearing loud booms, and there are fighter planes regularly flying overhead. But I have not heard a siren in three days. I am not cowering in my safe room. When I look out the window, I don’t see a war zone. There is one less than two hours from here, but I am not seeing it with my own eyes. Pictures are not the same as reality.   

How is it fair for me to attempt to understand what people in seriously affected areas are going through right now? It’s not my reality. I want to feel their pain while simultaneously not wanting to feel it because it hurts too much. But I’m not hurting as much as they are, and that makes me feel guilty. Nobody wants to feel pain, but at this moment in time, can you be Israeli without feeling pain? Can you be a human being without feeling some level of pain right now? 

Is having a loved one missing or the knowledge they have been captured better than confirmed death of a loved one? I don’t know. I hope to never know. But I wonder if people stuck in this horrific limbo are wondering the same thing. Is worry better than grief?

Based on past experiences when I was in America during times of terror in Israel, I know that I am happy to be here and not there. The worry felt from afar tends to be much stronger. I am very lucky to be in Israel at this time, and I am very grateful to all of my friends and family who have reached out to check in over the past few days. 

What is to come? How long will this war go on? Will I continue to feel like an imposter Israeli? I don’t know. There are a lot of things that I don’t know, and that’s ok. God knows, and we’ll find out when it’s time to find out. In the meantime we hope and pray that the tidings are good.  

This is what I am grappling with today. Maybe it will be something else tomorrow. Maybe more of the same. And so I continue to ask myself this question: Am I Israeli? I think I am. 

About the Author
Ariella Cohen grew up in Far Rockaway, NY and made Aliyah from Bala Cynwyd, PA in August 2023. She is an engineer and amateur musician with lots of other hobbies on the side.
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