Who’s Afraid to Talk about Israel?

On one of my first days of my shlichut, I came across a fascinating and artistic event, in the heart of Jewish Brooklyn.  It was just my first week, and I scattered around the room, looking for potential peers and perhaps friends.

From all the people I made connections with, one girl in particular left an unprecedented impression on me, because she have taught me a lesson for life-about Jewish people and Israel.

“I am Ophir, an Israeli Shaliach here in New York” I told her. On that very moment, the glance in her eyes suddenly transformed miraculously. “Wow, I was born and lived in Israel when I was little”! She announced with sheer excitement. “I lived in Jerusalem”.

I was very happy to learn that, since Jerusalem has been my home until the very start of my Shlichut. “No way, I’m from there!” I replied.   Before I was able to respond, a wave of random Hebrew words came out of her mouth. They all had a semantic common ground: Autobus (Hebrew word for Bus), Pitzutz (Explosion), Mechonit Tofet (an explosive car). You guessed it right: she grew up in Jerusalem in the tensest period I ever remember-the second intifada.

After sharing her Hebrew vocabulary, the girl asked me a question that seemed to be safe: “are you a Shaliach Tzioni?” she asked me this in Hebrew, and the word Tzioni means Zionist. For me as an Israeli, the term “Zionist” was a obvious as the sun that rises from the east. It doesn’t matter if you’re a leftist or a right winger, Zionism is a broad consensus.

Or so I thought.

I answered “Yes” nonchalantly, and her smile and approach flipped in 180 degrees. “if you’re a shaliach Tzioni I am not your audience” she said, erased the smile from her mouth and disappeared elegantly.

“If she’s not my audience”, I wondered, “then who is?”

To that moment and to this girl I owe a huge favor:  they made me realize that Zionism can be a trigger world for Jewish people as well.

One year prior to this event, I facilitated two dialogue groups of Israeli and Palestinian teens. Ironically, the Palestinians in this dialogue group were more open to talk about Israel, and even about the buzzword “Zionism”, than the Jewish girl I have met in the event would.

That led me to ask a very serious question: Who’s afraid to talk about Israel?

The striking answer is: we all do. Fast forward to the second month of my Shlichut, I worked on a talkback after the Israeli staged reading of “The Hearing”. In case you haven’t heard of it before, “The Hearing” is based on the story of the Israeli high school teacher Adam Verete’, who was accused by his student of promoting Anti-Israeli propaganda in the classroom. Somehow, I always find myself dealing with issues most people would rather run away from-and they have a good reason!

After I managed to get three speakers to my talkback (one of them is Taly Krupkin, Haaretz Journalist in New York), I wrote posts in Israeli facebook groups, in order to promote my event. The comments I received hurt me to the core:”Traitor!” one commentator virtually shouted. “I don’t go to events that are against our country!” another one added with vengeance mixed with pleasure.

Luckily, many people attended and we had a fruitful discussion a talkback following “The Hearing”. Yet despite this success I was haunted by the concept of legitimacy, and how it depends on point of views. For the American-Jewish girl, my title of “Zionist” marked me as an agent of the right wing, who tries to promote everything she’s not:  Jewish religious Zealotry, discrimination against minorities, and the occupation. For the heated Israelis on that facebook group, I became a symbol of leftist treachery, a sellout, someone who believes the Jewish people are occupiers in their own land.

My experience as a facilitator taught me that these are images, assumptions and stereotypes. They might be based on reality, but only from a certain point of view.

I want to use this platform to call for everyone who’s afraid to talk about Israel: let’s deal with this fear, together! I want to be your facilitator and also your window, I want to be a provider of Israeli culture, way of thinking and food through my lunch and learn sessions, and of hard questions and big elephants in future dialogue rooms.

I want to deliver my Israel towards Poetry Slam, art, and most importantly-You.

Israel may be just a country in the far Middle East, and it’s more than that: it’s a microcosm for all the problems we face here with race, religion, gender and economy. It’s also a microcosm of solutions, when people choose to create an Israel of their own making, one that is accepting of Jews of many colors and perspectives, one that tries to solve the conflict, a nation of artists and entrepreneurs.

Who’s afraid of talking about Israel? We all do. And who’s the audience to deal with that fear? We all are.

About the Author
From Jerusalem and now lives in New York, Ophir Tal is a Community Shaliach of The 14th Street Y (sent by the Jewish Agency and UJA Federation of New York). In Israel he served in the Military as a journalist in the IDF Newsletter Bamahane , worked in the supreme court of Israel in Educational workshops about democracy, in YMCA and Seeds of peace (facilitation of conflict based dialogues) and as a Journalist in Xnet. Ophir loves Creative Writing, crossfit and cooking Shakshuka.
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