Coming to terms with a crisis of Israeli-American identity


Which do you prefer, France or Israel?”

It’s 2017. I’m working in Netanya as an English teacher as part of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program, and I’m curious about the preferences of my 11-year-old student, Eitan. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) His family made aliyah from Marseilles a few months prior.
“Israel,” he responds, definitively. Intrigued, I asked him why.
I studied in France in 2014 and found it a very pleasant place to live. He sighs, points to his kippah, and replies, “Ki ze beseder po.” Because this is okay here.
My sister and I were raised outside of Philadelphia by our journalist Jewish father and social-worker mother, who made every effort to instill in us values of respect for all people as well as the importance of cultivating an open mind in regard to those who are different from us. We were taught to treat everyone with kindness as well as to think critically.
Generally speaking, our values led us to support the Democratic Party. When I made aliyah in February of 2019, I’ve strived to carry these values with me in my new home in this part of the world.
My decision to move to Israel was not because of any particular ideal. It was an abstract, distant place that I’d given little thought to until participating in Birthright in 2015. But from the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt a certain pull, a feeling that this is where I am supposed to be. It was and remains an intangible magic that is bigger than myself. 

My grandparents passed away when I was very young, and being here has kindled a feeling of curiosity and connection to our family’s increasingly watered-down Jewish heritage. The longer I’ve been here, the more my eyes have been opened to the plight of the Jewish people in ways that I had never really encountered growing up in our Pennsylvania suburb. 

I’m white, blonde, and live a mostly secular lifestyle – religious practice was never a big part of my upbringing, and most people would never know that I am Jewish unless I told them. Over the last few years, however, my stance has changed to a degree, and throughout the recent round of fighting, brought up something of an identity crisis.  

DURING MY time with MITF, I met countless students whose families were here for reasons similar to Eitan’s. I even spent a few months volunteering with a Holocaust survivor named Tamar. She was in her 90’s and didn’t like to talk about what she’d been through, but her son, a pilot, mentioned one day that throughout all of his years of work, he could never convince her to join him in his travels. He explained that she was afraid that if she went abroad, there could be another Holocaust and she wouldn’t be able to get back to the one place she knew she’d be safe.
My Judaism had never led me to know the fear and pain of people like Eitan and Tamar.
I am not condoning a great deal of what Israel’s current leadership has inflicted on our neighbors. I’ve now voted against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu four times over the course of two years. While I’m aware that for many here, the ideal of a Jewish state extends beyond the established 1967 borders, I do not agree that taking land in any way that most of the world considers illegal is the way to accomplish this. And as an American, I believe the use of any and all weapons supplied by the US in the name of defense should be audited.
I understand criticism of government, and I understand the importance of accountability, especially when the lack thereof is costing innocent people their lives. In an ideal world, I support ongoing discussion over combat until a workable solution is found for all sides.
But we do not live in an ideal world, and this is where my crisis of identity begins.
From where I stand, I can see two main factions of the Free Palestine movement. One is a call for criticism and accountability of the current Israeli government. As a Democrat, most of this I can agree with. The other is a call for the eradication of Israel and the denial of its right to exist. As an Israeli Jew, this is frightening. My frustration at this point is that the two seem to be becoming increasingly conflated through the use of hyperbolic language such as “genocide.”

When I see progressive friends and politicians posting in support of a free Palestinian state, I don’t immediately know what they mean. Are they calling for the cessation of illegal settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem? I can get behind that. But does their support extend to align with the now infamous call for Palestinian liberation “from the river to the sea?” That, I’m not okay with, and to be honest, I believe it would further the cause of the former to emphasize the distinction.

THE LATTER implies the end of the only place in the world where Jews are protected from antisemitism. This is especially upsetting, and in some sense gas-lighting, when coming from our American Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s a throwing-under-the-bus of those that had no other place to go in the name of “progress.” It approaches the conflict with an attitude of “We’re fine in the Diaspora, so you should be too.”
I’m fortunate to have the option of returning to the US if I no longer feel safe here and slipping back into a white, blonde, secular life. My Yemenite-Jewish fiancé’s extended family, on the other hand, does not. Eitan and Tamar do not.
In this ideal world, Jews and non-Jews would share this land in peace without borders, but the current reality both here and abroad is that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, because any other means of our guaranteed safety in relation to our Judaism has yet to be established. Even if they had, why should we have no choice but to continue living in a Diaspora as opposed to our historic homeland? With or without an official state, Jews should have the right to live peacefully in this particular part of the world – and so should Palestinians – but it’s the responsibility of each side to recognize and respect the rights of the other to exist here. My frustration comes in seeing that while both sides are guilty of transgressions, the politicians whom I would normally support are criticizing Israel while largely ignoring one key factor.

The Hamas Charter explicitly calls for the eradication of Jews and the Jewish state, and this is a puzzle piece not being discussed nearly enough on social media, or by many left-wing politicians. In the name of this eradication, Hamas puts most of the international funding it receives in good faith toward weapons and steel and concrete reinforced underground tunnels designed to protect Hamas. 

It builds its arsenals in schools and hospitals, knowing that this will either prevent Israel’s retaliation, or cause destruction that will make for great footage. This is well established, but Hamas has done a fantastic job of ensuring that these practices are not what the world sees. Its PR strategy is evil, but effective in terms of garnering international sympathy. And judging by the responses of many on the Left over the last few weeks, it’s working.
One example of this is John Oliver’s recent analysis of the conflict. I’ve always liked John Oliver; I find him witty and well spoken, and generally agree with what he has to say. His ongoing battle with Danbury, Connecticut and offer to buy the Phillie Phanatic provided moments of much needed comic relief amid the stresses of 2020. But his episode about our current situation left me angry and disappointed. He begins the episode by stating that he does not know or understand a great deal of what is happening in this region, but then continues anyway, shouting repeatedly about how Israel is committing what “seem like probable” war crimes in Gaza. Only toward the end does he even mention Hamas as an aside, as if it’s an annoying younger sibling that Israel should just ignore and not an existential threat by a terrorist organization. He conflates the conditions in which Gazans live, which are much more to do with Hamas than Israel, with Israel’s right to protect its people. He never once acknowledges the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets by Hamas as an act of terror or the actual war crime that it is. Rather than present a nuanced critique of our current government, his rhetoric stirs in its viewers an anger toward Israel itself. 
I SEE NO reason why, if Israel is, as it claims, only targeting Hamas assets in Gaza, it shouldn’t be required to present evidence of its findings and undergo audits.
Civilian casualties are tragic, especially when they’re children. But it’s inflammatory and untrue for anyone, especially people with influence, to regard them as war crimes if they’re the side-effect of targeted assaults against an organization that prioritizes the annihilation of an entire people over working to establish quality of life for their own. This was evident through the 4000-plus rockets Hamas indiscriminately fired at Israel earlier this month. And the Iron Dome’s interception does not make it any more acceptable. It’s a blatant double-standard to expect Israel to not do everything in its power to protect its people just because they didn’t succeed in killing more of us. To put down our guard would be to sacrifice our own. I’m not confident that any other country in the world would face such scrutiny regarding its self-defense.
I don’t have the answer. I support the right of all people on both sides to live safely, and have not given up hope that one day we will. I don’t believe that one people’s freedom should have to come at the expense of the other. This is not true freedom. But we will not know sustainable peace as long as one side refuses to acknowledge the rights of the other to exist. We need to know that we can trust each other.

I do know that criticism of and accountability for Netanyahu and the Israeli government are not the same conversation as whether or not Jews have a right to be here in the first place. Inflammatory tweets full of heavy, loaded language do not make this land safer for Israelis or Palestinians, and the emotional weight these words carry makes real conversation all the more difficult.


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