Opening American Eyes to Israel's Diversity

Seeing Arabs and Immigrants Would Build Real Commitment

By Sarah Schonberg

Published August 10, 2011, issue of August 19, 2011.
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American Jews would benefit from listening to Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. In a recent talk, Adichie explained that “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.” Only when American Jewry exposes its youth to all the stories that make up Israeli society will we be able to remove the indifference that has built up over decades of recounting only one story. Living in fear of exposing our community to the complexity of Israel is backfiring and is resulting in a generation of disengaged Jews. By purposefully keeping ourselves in the dark, by hiding from the reality of Israel, we are robbing ourselves of our homeland.

At age 15, I went to Israel with 200 teenage American Jews. My local Jewish federation funded this five-week trip, and we saw it all. Or so we were led to believe. From hiking Masada to rafting on the Jordan to biking in the Negev to snorkeling in Eilat, in 35 days we covered the Israeli tourist experience. I had seen Israel and felt no desire to return. I did go back, however, two years later with my family. We did less active versions of all the same activities. These trips resonated mostly because they left me with the amazing feeling of being in a country totally made up of Jews. But something felt off. The allegiance I felt did not feel authentic. I would not have dared to call myself a Zionist.

In college I studied in Nepal and Mexico. Studying in Israel did not interest me; my memory of the place was of a big Disney World where being Jewish felt good and all the stories we read in Hebrew school came to life. It wasn’t until I checked into a hostel in Rishikesh, India, that I was introduced to a more real vision of Israel. Omer and Haga stayed in the room next to me. They were so much like me, except that they were Israelis. They weren’t tour guides, waiters, hotel staff or men in dark hats and suits. We played a constant game of musical chairs with the hammocks on our shared balcony as other traveling Israelis came to eat curry or smoke cigarettes. We talked for hours every day. Omer, Haga and the others were unimpressed when I told them I had visited their country not once, but twice. I was surprised to learn that many of my new friends did not necessarily appreciate American Jews’ interest in or blanket support of Israel. The more they talked, the less I knew about my supposed homeland. It was on that balcony in India that I began to understand that the complexity with which Israelis live every day is greatly ignored by American Jews. Having heard only a few stories, I did not understand that nuance, but I learned that it existed.

I returned to the United States, and five years later I found myself working in the Jewish community. The work was and is enormously satisfying on spiritual and communal levels. But, I always remained indifferent to Israel. This time, however, it was my awareness of the complexity, and not my naiveté that kept me away. I knew there were layers of nuance well beyond my understanding, and I did not have the tools to dissect them. I did not know where to look for more stories.

Then I was blessed with a professional development opportunity to earn credits in Jewish studies. I was sent on a 14-day trip, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and organized by Hebrew College and my employer, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), with 14 of my colleagues, all of us non-Orthodox Jews in our 20s. The purpose of the trip was to understand Zionism by understanding Israel’s past, present and future. A major element of our curriculum was the study of, and interaction with, “the other.” Each day was filled with interactions with people living in Israel: Darfuris seeking asylum; an Arab-Israeli who lost his land in 1948; a Druze military commander and community organizer; an American-born Israeli Jew living in the West Bank; an Arab-Israeli female entrepreneur; Jewish Israeli activists from the LGBT community; a Beduoin college student, and the list goes on. Plus, we were introduced to the vast religious and cultural diversity that makes up the Jewish community in Israel.

It was only after I heard many of the stories that make up Israel, and define Israelis, that I felt connected to Israel. Only then did I have the clarity and confidence to call myself a Zionist.
Not all the stories I heard were heart-warming. Foreigners seeking refuge in Israel are sent to jail immediately upon entering the country. They often spend years in prison. The Arab-Israeli who lost his land in the War of Independence believed fully that he had a right to that land. The Druze commander and Bedouin student told stories of discrimination. The Jew living in the West Bank bitterly argued her case.

Some of the stories were uplifting. The Arab entrepreneur who learned to run her own business, loosening the grip of her oppressive marriage. The Darfuri refugees were now free from persecution. The Bedouin student loved her classes. Most everyone we met was passionately committed to living in Israel.

In either case, heart-warming or not, it became obvious that Israel grapples with very real challenges that I could relate to as an American, challenges confronted by living in a diverse and modern world. Israel is 75.5% Jewish. The Arab-Israeli population makes up 20.1% of the country. To overlook a population of this size is akin to ignoring the entire black, Asian, Native American and multiracial populations in the United States.

Political writer Peter Beinart argued earlier last year that “saving liberal Zionism in the United States — so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel — is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.” Beinart thinks the problem is that the hard-line policies of Israel’s current government push away American Jews. I think the real problem lies elsewhere. The best way to end the indifference is to tell the true stories of Israel so that American Jews can form their own relationships with our homeland. What American youth are indifferent to is hearing just one story and being told to accept it without question.

Sarah Schonberg is BBYO’s Friends & Alumni Network and Development Communications Director.


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