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But I was not born in beautiful Toledo to an ironworker and teacher, and every time I let my Israeli passport lapse I am forced to return to the highly guarded consulate in New York City. I smile at my closely shaven friends who are miffed that this Yerushalmi barely speaks any Hebrew. They are wondering what I am doing there, who I am and what brings me back. When I get upstairs after passing through metal detectors and more questioning, I am both at home and abroad. I understand almost no one in the room and am embarrassed by my stumbling tongue when I try to speak Hebrew.
At the same time, this garishly lit room, an embodiment of bureaucracy, slowly lulls me into remembering that I am Israeli no matter how poor a job I am doing of acting and speaking like one, and soon I am beating the drums of the Israel Defense Forces in my head, waiting for my number to be called. But then, when I am called to the window and asked if I served in the army, I simply reply, “Of course not, I went to high school in America.” In return I receive a sympathetic nod, a stamp and another temporary extension until I return to Israel to live for longer than a year.
It is in that room, or at customs, or in my own house that I think about how lucky one must be to possess a singular identity, as rare as that is these days — to have no questions about where and why one exists, and to simply live harmoniously with one passport, one country, possibly under one God.
Of course the bigger question looms above our heads. What does it even mean to be a citizen of one country versus the next in this age of global connectivity? Do we need national citizenship? If we abolished citizenship, would it change the way we treat our fellow human beings? Are massive American corporations, hiding profits in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, really trying to teach us a lesson about the possibilities of global citizenship? Would you care about a porous border if the border were meaningless?
Until that unlikely day of global citizenship arrives, I will continue to hesitate. “Which is it?” I will ask myself while in line for immigration control, or sitting on my bed at home with an empty valise, or filling out papers at the municipal building. It is a haunting question that presses on your rib cage, shortening your breath, making you sweat. It is almost impossible to answer with a definitive statement.
Who are you? For Ben Zygier, perhaps that question became too much.
Ari Jankelowitz is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn.