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June 14, 2017 by

Let’s Talk about Israel: Grappling with Dissonance in Jewish Identity

jerusalem-556044_1920“If the Arabs didn’t kill me, my wife would.” 

Did he just say that? 

After the split second necessary for me to process his words and maintain a neutral expression, I answer: 

“Why’s that?”

“She doesn’t want me walking through the Arab neighborhood.” 

Obviously.

We are talking, of course, about which gate to use to exit the kotel.

I think he means it as a joke, but it’s not funny.

On this visit to Israel, I have been floored multiple times by this kind of abject fear, prejudice and even hatred—veiled and otherwise—toward the vaguely-defined “Arabs.” 

*** 

I don’t want to write about this hatred, but I feel I must. I don’t mean to criticize the incredible people who have welcomed me here, but I feel an obligation to present my experiences as they have been—without convenient omissions. I come from a class of American Jews for whom criticism of Israel is practically the equivalent of self-hatred. Yet, to be silent is to be complacent. 

***

Fifteen minutes later, I learn that we are to join this man and aforementioned wife for Shabbat dinner.

As we walk across the large stone plaza by the Western Wall (toward the “safe,” acceptable gate), the Muslim call to prayer echoes across the open space. It is, as I always find it to be, hauntingly beautiful. 

Dissonance.

I steel myself for an interesting (challenging) evening. But nothing ever happens the way we expect. 

Eighteen guests break bread (matzah) around a generously laden table, and before we take turns introducing ourselves, our hostess delivers a brief speech full of lovely sentiments on perspective, understanding and peace.

How we should all get along.

Our hosts turn out to be warm, exuberant, slightly odd, good-hearted and generous humans. They delight in opening their homes to strangers every Friday night.

The dissonance still has me reeling weeks later.

How can people who live according to laws of loving-kindness, compassion, charity and devotion also spread hate? 

It is the paradox of our times—perhaps of every time.

*** 

I do not want to write about this ugly, complicated tangle of politics, identity, religion, culture and hate. But to stay silent is to be complacent. 

Growing up in Jewish communities in the U.S., I have seen how stories of persecution and oppression—and survival—perpetuate themselves. 

I know how seductive it is to believe ourselves always the David to another’s Goliath. Such archetypes are practically written into our genetic code. After all, everyone wants to be the hero, the victorious underdog, the resilient victim. To put it in contemporary terms, most of us see our obstacles with clarity—but rarely our privilege.

All of us have our hands too close to our faces to read our palms. 

Seven years ago, when I first visited Israel, I was still too close to the flattering, awe/fear-inspiring story with which most Jews are inoculated. Three years ago, when I wrote my senior thesis in Anthropology on female Jewish identity, I had taken a few steps back.

Now, I’ve taken a few more. And once again, I have gained perspective in the process.

I don’t have any answers to offer, but I have questions churning in my brain, and I want them to churn in yours, too.

***

“Now, some people are saying that Israel is an apartheid state,” he says in a classic Brooklyn accent unchanged by twenty-plus years living in Israel.

The patriarch of the family (another family, in another Jerusalem neighborhood, for another Passover week dinner) sits at the head of the table.

I certainly wasn’t planning on opening that can of worms, and I hold my peace while he holds forth.

“That is simply not true.”

He goes on to explain why point-to-shoot, border walls, checkpoints and other security policies are justified and necessary to the self-preservation of the Jewish people. 

I hold my peace and wait for the subject to pass. But it’s so much more complicated.

While living in Cape Town for half of the past year, I, too, have heard some people—many people—referring to Israel as an apartheid state.

Takes one to know one?

I don’t know. I do know, however, that the arguments are compelling and not insubstantial. It’s not an entirely ludicrous claim, as others would declare.

This family of religious Jews is, like the other, extraordinarily kind, warm, welcoming, generous and loving.

They ply us with food, wine, friendly interrogation on every aspect of our lives. There is joy and laughter at this table, and we are folded into the melody. Yet, every so often a “joke” slips out at the edge of conversation, and the note falls flat on my ears. 

Dissonance.

Again, my mind turns over and over the same questions:

How can people have such open hearts, yet such narrow minds? How can we preach love, but spread hate? How can we celebrate our survival, and at the same time justify—advocate for—the oppression of our fellow humans?

I’m not oblivious. I’ve heard this dissonance a hundred times in a hundred places. Contradictions spoken by a hundred mouths in a hundred languages. The pairing of hate and love in a hundred hearts; the conflict of logic and fear in a hundred minds. 

But this, now, in Israel, is different for me.

It hurts me to see a group of people—to whom I belong; whom I am proud to call my own; whose story of survival is my story of survival—display these contradictions.

Dissonance.

The shelves of history are crowded with stories of the oppressed who became the oppressors—the Hutu and the Tutsi; the early pilgrims to America; Britain (if you go far enough back); Burma/Myanmar—a narrative so common as to almost be an historical cliché.

It is too easy to live out the patterns of conflict handed down by past generations. In Israel and Palestine, these stories exist now in abundance on both sides of the proverbial—and literal—fence.

It is far harder to pull our hands away from our eyes and read the map of where we have walked—and where we are walking.

Is Israel an apartheid state? I’ll leave that to the history books to answer, though we know those will only ever tell part of the story.

I am far more concerned with the answer to this:

How can people have such open hearts, yet such narrow minds? How can we contain such love and generosity—and such anxiety and fear—within our individual or national bodies?

I would like to know.

I don’t.

I do know, however, that I wish I had not held my peace for the sake of harmony—as I so often do. For to stay silent is to be complacent. 

*** 

I regretted saying nothing at that first dinner, so at the second dinner, when I introduced myself to the 19 other guests and our hosts (the instructions: talk about something—anything), I told a story. It wasn’t a Jewish story; I think I’ve heard it’s Cherokee, and the original version I saw goes like this: 

An old man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” 

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” 

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” 

I don’t know if my message reached anyone, but at least this time I tried.

And I’ll keep trying.


Toby Israel describes herself as an “incorrigible vagabond.” You can follow her journey as a 21st century nomad via her website (tobyisrael.me), Facebook, and Instagram. She has worked as a wandering editor, writer, yoga teacher, and consultant, but will soon be moving to Costa Rica to pursue a masters in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.