Part of creating a Jewish identity in the 21st-century Diaspora is entering into a relationship — however thin, however distant, however indirect — with Eretz Yisrael, what we now call the state of Israel, and its ancient, layered complexities.
I am not up to the task.
But is anyone who hasn’t lived there, hasn’t faced mortal danger and raw existential fear before their first cup of coffee in the morning?
I bring to this relationship the lefty political philosophy that goes everywhere with me. Pursue justice, fairness, and dignity for all. Do not do to others what is hateful to you. Become the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi taught us.
More often than not, that predisposes me to reactions that don’t fall on the side of the Israeli government and military, present and past.
I’m mindful of that.
I’m also mindful that I’ve never had to face the mortal dangers that are a fact of life in Israel and its neighboring countries.
I’m also mindful that I’ve never faced those dangers with the blood-fresh memory of the Holocaust seared into my mind. I’ve never seen anyone killed, never been shot at, never fired a gun.
I’m also mindful that my reactions and my philosophy are of no interest or consequence in this world. Except maybe to you as long as you’re here.
So for the brief time that I have your eyeballs, I’ll usually try to invite them to settle on content that is about creating deeper understanding. Not taking sides, not diminishing the fear or the suffering on either of them, but bearing witness, nurturing shared values, and building up the ground scorched by conflict.
For Instance, There’s This:
Outside their classroom window a beautiful spring afternoon is blooming, but a few students at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox academy in Manhattan, have stayed after school for a foreign-language club.
After teacher Orit Nawrocki drills them on their siblings’ ages and on various vegetables, all in an unfamiliar language, she bids them farewell.
“See you again,” she says.
Smiling, they respond, “Insha’Allah,” the Arabic phrase for “God willing.”
Yes. American Jewish kids learning Arabic. Pre-Conversion Michael, for all his leftward leanings, would have thought this amounted to pissing in the wind, essentially. Mid-Conversion Michael has a better appreciation for one of the central teachings of Jewish observance: Everything we do matters. One of the young people interviewed for this piece puts it beautifully:
“I know how naïve this sounds, but I always thought that I would go to Israel and speak Arabic with an Arab,” 16-year-old Becca Siegel wrote to the Forward in an e-mail. “One day I want an Arab to feel like a random American Jewish girl cares about him and his culture. I know that nothing I could possibly do could change the situation in the Middle East, but maybe if one Arab could meet a Jewish girl that cares, that could do something to tip the scale.”
You said it, Becca. So for my visitors who come here more steeped in knowledge of Israeli life and its struggles than I will probably ever be, please bear with Becca and me as we sort out how to live out our values from afar.