How Did I Get Here?

By Yonit Friedman 

One of my first memories of my Jewish education is Tikkun Olam Day[1] at my Reform Hebrew school. The entire religious school devoted one Sunday to preparing a multi-course meal for the guests at a local women’s shelter. Each grade was responsible for a different course: my class made loaf after loaf of challah, while the older students made enormous pans of veggie lasagna. As I braided the dough with my little hands, I listened to a woman talk to us about how this shelter had provided her and so many other poor and homeless women with the resources they needed to get back on their feet. The message was clear: this work of repairing the world was just as crucial, just as Jewish, as lighting Shabbat candles, reading Hebrew, or our mock Israel trip, complete with construction-paper “passports.”

Fourteen years, and several more stamps in my (real) passport later, I broke my streak of ‘uninvolvement’ with Jewish life on my college campus when I decided to participate in a Birthright trip (Taglit in Hebrew).  At my interview, the staff leader asked me why I wanted to go to Israel. I twisted my hands and thought for a moment. “I have so many relatives,” I said, “who love Israel so much. They’ve always been like that. One of them is even thinking of making Aliyah when she graduates. I’ve never really been bitten by that Zionist bug. I guess I’m trying to see where they come from, see what everyone else is talking about.” I refrained from mentioning my fears of right-wing political indoctrination. A few months later, I was on a flight to Israel.

My fears were substantiated on the first full day of my Birthright trip when our tour guide in the Golan Heights joked about sending unsuspecting Arabs to picnic on hills filled with old land mines. I was one of the only people in my group who did not laugh. Later in the week, on a tour of Jaffa, we were told that the city was once populated entirely with Arabs, with no mention made of where those people were today. A funny thing happened, though: instead of running far away from the blatant racism and propaganda, I found myself wanting to stay longer. I wanted to explore on my own, and to talk to people who wouldn't just stick to the Taglit-approved party line. On my second to last night in Israel, I called my parents.

“I think I want to spend next semester here,” I said.
“You’re joking, right?” said my mother.

Nablus at Night. Photo by Yonit Friedman 

Nablus at Night. Photo by Yonit Friedman 

I did, indeed, return, spending the next semester in Tel Aviv. I joked that, after Birthright, I was now on Birthleft: I interned for the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa and tutored English at the African Refugee Development Center in South Tel Aviv. (When, at the latter, I met people who had escaped the genocide in Darfur and could not secure asylum in Israel, I thought bitterly of the day after my Birthright group visited Yad Vashem, when we debated whether or not Israel should deport these refugees, given their “crime risk,” and the suggestion that they posed a “demographic threat.”) In November, I heard about a day-long tour of Balata, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank and I immediately signed up to go. A few days later, I boarded a van with several other Americans and Europeans, and drove over the Green Line, past fields of olive groves smashed to the ground by settlers, and arrived at the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus.

In the camp, I walked up and down cramped streets, meeting small, malnourished-looking children who had come out to greet the visitors with the few English words they knew, shouting “Hi-hello-what-is-your-name-where-are-you-from!” I listened to our Palestinian guide, a teacher and director of a youth center, talk about trying to teach nonviolent resistance to his students who were caught between the occupation and Hamas. As I noticed the broken glass on the streets (thanks to the lack of infrastructure for trash collection) and heard about teenagers who had been killed by IDF soldiers searching for terrorists (“collateral damage,” as the U.S. would call it,) I thought back to my Birthright trip, just eleven months earlier, when we drove by the enormous, grey separation wall, with no acknowledgement of the daily struggles of the people living behind it.

This separation wall, which kept Palestinians isolated from resources and loved ones on the other side? This was for my safety, I had been told. The Six Days’ War, which turned the parents of the children I met into refugees? This, I was told, was a great source of pride for my people. The entire system of occupation, which displaced people from their homes and left them under military rule for almost half a century? This was the necessary price to pay for national security for my fellow Jews. Of course, the unjustness of this system was inexcusable, and would be so regardless of who perpetuated these offenses. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that the people responsible for these atrocities perpetuated them in my name.

A month later, I was back in the U.S. Excited relatives kept asking me, “How was it?” I didn’t know how to respond. I thought about saying “I can’t decide whether to never set foot in that country again, or to stay and fight to change things from the inside.” I thought about saying “I’ve never felt so disconnected from my Judaism in my life.” I thought about saying “I saw the best and the worst in people, at the same time.” I settled for, “It was intense.”

In her essay “The Yishuv,” Sophie Schor wonders what her life would be like if, like her Haredi cousins, she didn’t worry about war or politics. What if, like them, she believed that the circumstances of our lives were divinely determined? Would she feel some sort of inner peace, rather than angst, fear, and sadness about everything from the occupation to climate change?

I often ask myself similar questions. What if I hadn’t gone on Birthright and felt that dissatisfaction? What if I hadn’t spent that semester in Tel Aviv, made friends with anti-occupation Israelis, and visited the West Bank? I’d probably still be the in-name-only, semi-apathetic liberal Zionist I was before I'd ever set foot in Israel. My politics would still be progressive, yes, but I’d focus so much more of my time and energy on causes closer to home. I wouldn’t have to bite my metaphorical tongue every time a distant relative posts something racist on social media about “the Arabs.” I wouldn’t have to wrestle with the guilt I feel for speaking out, wondering one moment about whether or not I’m taking away airtime from Palestinian voices, worrying the next moment that my views will hurt my loved ones who hold onto Israel as the place they can run to when America, like everywhere else they’ve lived, becomes too dangerous for Jews. And on a less personal scale, many leaders of the American Jewish establishment believe, quite vocally, that people with values like mine are dangerous to the Jewish community. My life would undoubtedly be simpler if I just ignored the occupation and refused to engage with Israel-Palestine in any capacity.

Still, though, I remember Tikkun Olam Day in elementary school. Those teachers, who either avoided the topic of the occupation or attempted to justify its existence, made that day seem like the most important occasion on the Hebrew school calendar.  It felt more important than Hannukah, Passover, or the day that we made construction paper passports to the Jewish Disneyland they called Israel. Years later, I don’t remember much else from Hebrew school, and I’m not very religiously observant, but I still believe in those values of social justice. Fighting injustice—whether in Israel-Palestine or here in the U.S.—is the only way I know how to be Jewish.


[1] “Tikkun olam” means “repairing the world” in Hebrew.