More than one of my politically and religiously liberal friends, when I told them I was converting to Judaism, gave as one of their first responses, “What about Israel?”
Good question. What about Israel?
I’ve understood all along that committing to the Jewish people and tradition also included coming into relationship with Israel—but the history and the issues seemed so complex that I have been reluctant to say much, to anyone, about anything related to the “Jewish State.”
Partly, this silence stemmed from a feeling that I didn’t know enough of the history, the politics, the people, and the issues to be able to speak with any authority. Partly, my place as a new Jew gave me pause. Partly, I saw how divisive the “Israel issue” is both within the American Jewish community and among people of other religious traditions, with whom I work.
It is safer not to speak. After spending two weeks in Israel, though, I’m looking at things a little differently.
I traveled to Israel to participate in Siach, a program that brings Jewish social justice and environmental leaders from the U.S., Europe, and Israel together for learning, conversation, and collaboration. During my time at Siach and in my travels before and after the 4-day program, I did my best to see, listen, and learn with open eyes and ears.
I toured the city center of Hebron in the West Bank with a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, who showed us main city streets now completely off-limits to Palestinians—and who ended our tour with an earnest plea for a path forward that ensures dignity for all people.
I heard a community leader from Nazareth Illit, a predominately Jewish town in the middle of a larger Arab population (the “Jewish hole in the middle of an Arab bagel,” he said) say that the biggest challenge his city faces is a rising Arab population and a declining Jewish one. “Our goal,” he said, “is to keep the city Jewish.”
I learned about an urban kibbutz in that same city, Nazareth Illit, that is creatively re-interpreting communal Jewish life. Each year, members of the community work together to create a new Haggadah for Passover; and part of their mission is to work for social justice, with a grounding in Jewish ethical teachings.
I listened to one member of the aforementioned urban kibbutz say that “the fear and misunderstanding between groups in the city comes from a lack of acquaintance”—that is, from a lack of real relationships or knowing the “other."
I learned that the Israeli social protest movement that started last summer, and that continues this summer, has spawned over 100 social justice organizations that are actively working for justice on a variety of issues within Israel.
I saw how the Lower Jordan River is dammed to ensure that there’s enough water for the Yardenit baptismal site, but how just downstream, the freshwater is replaced by salt water from saline springs and by raw, untreated sewage—and that’s what flows south from there. Our guide from Friends of the Earth Middle East showed us construction on a new water treatment plant that will handle the sewage; she told us that getting the plant built took years of community organizing effort, illustrating the power (and necessity) of community involvement and engagement.
I participated in part of a Rosh Chodesh (new month) service held by the Women of the Wall as part of a public call for religious pluralism and advocating for the place of women in religious life. Two days later over Shabbat lunch, I unexpectedly met the young woman who’d been detained after that Rosh Chodesh service for wearing her tallit (prayer shawl) at the Western Wall, and heard some of her story.
I attended a Friday night Shabbat service at a synagogue in Jerusalem that was focusing that evening on promoting the rights and acceptance of LGBT Jews in Israel.
I listened as one young woman, an American who’d moved to Israel years ago, spoke about her experience of working with Bedouin communities in the Negev Desert—and how seeing communities there get bulldozed felt like a betrayal of the Judaism she’d been taught in religious school.
I saw ancient synagogues… a Crusader castle… Roman ruins… the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount… the place where 16th-century Jewish mystics greeted Shabbat as the sun set each Friday evening… the Church of the Holy Sepulchre… the Dome of the Rock… people sunbathing on the beach in Tel Aviv… young Orthodox mothers with covered hair in Jerusalem… and many things in-between. I saw a vibrant, striving, conflicted, and diverse community of very real people.
In a discussion about Israel’s challenges at the Siach program, one Israeli colleague summed things up this way: “The problem is the bubble.”
What in the American Jewish community so often feels like a black and white, either/or choice about Israel—either full, unconditional support or total rejection—seems completely ridiculous in the face the small sliver of complexity I encountered on my trip. If everyone waited to speak about Israel until they understood the “whole situation,” then no one, anywhere, would say anything. The history, the people, the politics, the religions, the land… it’s all so, so complex.
My friends were right: walking a Jewish path means being in relationship with Israel. I return from the “Holy Land” certain that there’s no way I or anyone else could ever fully understand everything—and yet, feeling that being in actual relationship with the land, the people and the state means speaking out, both in support and in criticism.
I don’t know yet exactly what “speaking out” about Israel means for me. For now, it means telling this story.
It is only through the sharing of stories, the popping of our insular bubbles, the building of real relationships—and active engagement from a place of honest humility that progress will be made. So let’s speak to each other. More importantly, let's listen.
Photo taken by me, Yaira Robinson, in Hebron.