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The Lessons They Didn’t Teach Me on Birthright

On the morning of November 25, 2014, broken windows lined St. Louis’s South Grand Boulevard. The previous night, the thriving commercial stretch next to Tower Grove Park had become a site for protests over the decision of a grand jury not to indict the white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old. I had left the protest while it was still mostly calm, but from my bedroom two blocks away I could hear shouting and banging. Some protesters became violent; the police started throwing tear gas. Both sides broke glass.

Local artists flocked to Grand, painting colorful images of the city on plywood boards covering the fractured glass. Messages of peace abounded. To many, the art seemed a flourishing of communal goodness in the wake of the fall’s series of shocks, not least of which were the additional St. Louis police killings of two young black men: Kajieme Powell and Vonderrit Myers. When the windows were replaced, the Missouri History Museum took some of the plywood art into its collection.

And yet, to others the art was a sign of how little the city had learned, a purely cosmetic expression of solidarity. It seemed to propagate a too easy truth: We were hurt, but we would go forward in love and unity. If we simply believed in each other and in ourselves — if we had faith — it would naturally follow that things would get better.

The memories of those rapid-fire days slid through my mind as I stood in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood some 20 months later, four days into my Birthright trip, hair still damp from a dip in the Mediterranean. (Birthright Israel, for those not in the know, works to forge a connection between young American Jews and Israel; its signature programming is a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to the country for 18–26-year-olds with Jewish backgrounds.) Surrounded by the 39 other members of my group as well as the seven Israelis, two counselors, guide and security-guard-cum-medic who accompanied us, I stared at a guide from Tel Aviv’s Grafitiyul, an organization that introduces groups to street art. He pointed to a painting on a building by the artist Kis-Lev, of two children with their backs turned to the viewer, standing with their arms around each other.

Image by Talya Zax

The children, he explained, were, respectively, characters in Israeli and in Palestinian cartoons. One was Srulik, a child — Zionist, pioneer, farmer — created to represent Israel in the early days of its statehood. The other was Hanthala, a barefoot child in ragged clothing who’d been created by the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali to act as a witness to the pain and struggle of life in the Middle East. As Srulik became a national mascot of Zionism, Hanthala turned into a symbol of the desire of Palestinians for self-determination. Al-Ali had had the latter turn his back to his audience in 1973, declaring that the 10-year-old character — his own age when he had been forced to leave his homeland —wouldn’t show his face or grow up until he could return.

Kis-Lev’s choice to bring the two together, Srulik’s back turned just like Hanthala’s, seemed like an admission that all was not right. I found it oddly comforting. I’d never been to Israel before, and given rumors of Birthright’s pro-Israel advocacy, I was worried I’d leave without seeing a single sign of resistance or rebellion against that narrative. Yet here was the first of those signs, and it was everything I’d hoped for: nuanced, hopeful, inclusive.

And yet here, also, was the aftermath: the lingering memory of those painted plywood window coverings in St. Louis, and the accompanying sense that it would be easy to mistake an appreciation for them for a real understanding of the wrongs they tried to address. We turned our backs on Srulik and Hanthala, laughing and chatting, and moved on.

On a sunny Wednesday in October 2015 I left the JCC Manhattan no longer certain I wanted to be Jewish. The crux of that wholly unexpected uncertainty was Israel. I was never taught to have a particular attachment to the country; my primary association with it was a somewhat romantic fascination with the Israel of Leon Uris’s riveting, patriotic “Exodus,” which I read when I was 18.

That October afternoon, I’d been presented with a radically different vision: that of Mor Loushy’s documentary “Censored Voices,” which revisited recordings, long suppressed by the Israeli army, made of Israeli soldiers shortly after their return from the Six Day War. The filmmakers tracked down both the soldiers and their interviewers, playing their long-silenced words back to them. Combining that footage with videos from the war, most wrenchingly that of Palestinians being forced away from their villages, the film suggested that in and after that war, Israel had suffered a shift in identity.

For millennia, the filmmakers explained, Jews had been the underdogs in every situation, lacking power in every meaningful sense. Over the course of the Six Day War, as Israel executed a stunning victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria — seizing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula — the country gained an unprecedented amount of political and military power, as well as direct power over the civilian occupants of its new territories. The soldiers interviewed, overall, were fearful of that power. They didn’t think Israel knew how to use it, and they were worried it would lead to a shift in political focus in which possession of the land would become paramount, overshadowing the importance of preserving the lives and lifestyles of Israeli Jews and the many different groups their existence impacted.

Leaving the screening, I recalled the first moment I remember truly questioning Judaism. I was 20 and studying abroad in London; with no Jewish connections to speak of, I spent the second Passover Seder at an Orthodox gathering with over 200 attendees. Accustomed to small family Seders, I disliked the fast-paced, impersonal progress of the service; when we were asked to stand and read aloud an unfamiliar portion of the Haggadah, my eyes raced ahead. The passage appeared to praise the military defeat, and even extermination, of enemies of the Jewish people. Those around me rose and recited it. I stayed in my seat, stunned.

The Judaism I’d grown up with was compassionate and thoughtful, a well of intellectual beauty. As a teenager I spent five years attending a weekly Talmud study class. We’d explore a single concept — for instance, the seemingly simple idea that it’s wrong to put a stumbling block in front of the blind — for months at a time, analyzing its meaning, its consequences and its applicability in the modern world. As I became more secular in college, I held on to that experience as the heart of my Judaism: peaceful, probing, deliberative.

The violence that prayer appeared to advocate had no place in my Judaism. The Israel I saw in “Censored Voices” was more complicated, but as I walked down Broadway with the film still fresh in my mind, my interest in my religion’s complexity took a step out of the abstract. If there was one thing I’d learned in St. Louis the previous year, it was that while it was comforting to believe I could pick and choose the parts of my born identity with which I wanted to be affiliated, doing so was, in practice, impossible. As black men, Brown, Powell and Myers didn’t get to choose whether or not to be affiliated with damaging stereotypes about them; they didn’t get to choose whether or not to suffer from the enormous disparities in educational and economic opportunities incurred by political and social systems rooted in racism, or to have their deaths go unpunished by a judicial system that rarely disciplines white police officers for violence against black people. As a white person, I didn’t get to shirk responsibility for the injustice of those systems just because I didn’t consider myself a racist. And as a Jew, I was realizing, I didn’t have the option to disregard my attachment to Israel, and with it my responsibility to understand its impact on the world — positive and negative alike — and advocate for it to grow into a better, fairer place.

In the weeks after I returned from Israel, I interviewed eight friends I’d made on Birthright about their experiences on the trip. They’re a mix of men and women from diverse Jewish backgrounds, all between 22 and 26 years old. I’ve decided not to name them; since I can’t give any one enough space to explain their reactions fully, I want to avoid unfairly associating them with my point of view.

There were certain conversations, mostly about politics and social justice, that I felt I couldn’t have on Birthright. The trip made significant efforts to get us to feel a connection to Israel; voicing questions about the country beyond those our trip leaders brought up, which were carefully curated, felt like an act that would have seriously isolated me from the group.

Some of my interviewees shared that feeling. It’s not that we weren’t exposed to the fact that Israel exists in the middle of an extremely complicated political situation; that point was emphasized throughout our trip. We spent an evening with Israel-based journalist Nathan Jeffay, formerly a reporter for this paper, who gave us some insight into Israel’s relationships with neighboring countries, the West Bank and Gaza. We visited the Golan Heights, peering across a barbed-wire fence into Syria. We made a rapid trip to Sderot to look at the not-so-distant Gaza. Even these activities were a degree of exposure I didn’t anticipate. It was momentarily intoxicating, the idea that I had been given the information I needed and could therefore start to love Israel without questioning it further.

On the other hand, acknowledging a political reality is not the same as making an effort to understand it; it’s far easier to say institutional racism still exists in the United States than to dig into the dirt of what that means. Aside from Jeffay’s presentation, the information we got focused almost entirely on the experiences and fears of Israelis: the tunnels Hamas has built from Gaza to Israel, and its plans to use them to conduct a massive attack on Rosh Hashanah in 2014; the bomb shelters that line the streets of Sderot; the Iron Dome, alert systems and school children’s safety training. We learned about a few of the lone soldiers, often Birthright alumni, who had died in the line of duty as members of the Israel Defense Forces.

At no point did we have a conversation about the realities of daily life for the Palestinians who live either under Israel’s occupation in the West Bank or in its shadow in Gaza. We did discuss some of Israel’s divisive governmental policies, but only those that affected Israelis. Yes, we broached the idea that true support for Israel might, as in any healthy political state, involve questioning the powers that be; the idea that it might also involve advocating for citizens not only of Israel, but also the territory it occupies, went unexplored. (It’s important to note that none of us asked for this information, including myself. I was worried about receiving answers marked by bias. I was also scared of alienating myself from the group, a more powerful fear than I’m proud to admit.)

Most people I talked to considered themselves relatively secular and were surprised by the trip’s light emphasis on religion. Most were nervous before going on the trip, due to concerns of security, an anxiety I shared. I asked about their understanding of the dynamic between Israel and the Palestinian people and territories before and after going to the country. Six of the eight said they had little knowledge of that conflict before the trip.

“I think it would have been good to be exposed to someone different,” one said, “because we would hear their side, too, what they experienced in everyday life. I’m sure it’s not easy for them.”

“I’ve wanted to learn more,” another said, “but I don’t even know where to start. To even go to the beginning and gather that information up until this point to be able to form an opinion — I don’t feel I know enough to find a proper one.”

Out of those six, some felt they’d learned as much as they needed to.

“From the Palestinian point of view,” one said, “it was eye-opening that [our guide] told us that we provide their power, electricity, everything for them in Gaza, and all they try to do is blow it up. They have no interest or understanding of the gravity of the situation. I think Israel’s tried to share it and they have no interest in compromising.”

“I knew that there was violence and I knew that there [were] people that didn’t want Israel to be what it is, the Jewish state,” another said, “but I didn’t know who the groups were and why. It opened my eyes to see why people feel the way they feel and why Israel is right to feel the way they feel. Before the trip I didn’t have any information. And while I was there I [knew] I was on Birthright and I’m supposed to be very pro-Israel, but I was also trying to listen to everything very neutrally.”

For the two who came in already well-acquainted with the conflict, what mattered was not so much the facts we learned about Israel, but the attitude we were asked to cultivate.

“I think a lot of people in our generation are afraid to connect with Israel, because they don’t realize you can have the ability to love a country and want it to be strong and still criticize it,” one of my interviewees said. “Know the history behind it. You should know completely objectively, and beyond that see how we feel like it’s our home, and see how other people might have ties to it as well.”

The day after our tour with Grafitiyul we went to Jerusalem. It was the place I’d been most eager and most terrified to visit, the former because I wanted to feel the spiritual power there, and the latter because I was terrified I wouldn’t.

I shouldn’t have been nervous. The moment I put my hands to the Western Wall I burst into tears. Of the eight Birthrighters I spoke to while preparing this story, most said their experience at the wall had been one of unanticipated depth and beauty.

“It didn’t matter who you were, what you looked like, what age you were, what you were wearing, everyone was happy and welcoming and talkative,” one said. “I felt such a magnetic energy,” another said. “Just standing there with those people who I didn’t even know was emotional for me,” a third stated.

Shortly after Michael Brown’s death, I was at a Yom Kippur service in St. Louis. My synagogue’s rabbi asked us to gather in groups under a single tallit during the blessing of the Kohanim. My then-partner draped his over my head and we accepted the blessing, held together by the literal fabric of Judaism. Touching the wall, I felt, again, the pristine elevation of that moment, but extended, as if I were standing under the same cloth as the entire Jewish people, dating back to Abraham.

I want this, I thought. I realized later that it was the first notable Jewish place I’d ever been whose history, for our people, was not entirely tragic. As we walked away, trekking up a hill on the edge of the Old City, I looked back at the Mount of Olives and marveled at the thousands of Jewish graves clustered there. They were for Jews who had been buried in their own land, by their own people. It was a degree of self-determination in death that, especially with Yad Vashem nearby, struck me as a rarity in our shared history. A small thing to hope for, yet so monumental.

I wanted to forget my questions about Israel. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of being held by something greater, warmer, richer and deeper than myself. I wanted to dwell in it. And I wanted, in doing so, to be at peace.

In that high school Talmud class, my teacher, Bruce, would welcome new students by writing the word “blue” in red marker. He would ask them whether the word was blue or red, whether its meaning or physical appearance decided its identity.

The answer was that the word was both; the idea behind the exercise of an action has to be evaluated both on its own terms and with consideration for the intention behind it. This was a framework we’d use to discuss the passages we went on to study, and for me it was a key lesson in Judaism: Ideas are invitations for further exploration.

In practice, of course, balancing action against intention, it’s difficult not to give too much weight to one side. When the Missouri History Museum preserved the artwork St. Louisans had placed over Grand’s broken windows, it was honoring the intention behind it, which was to find beauty in unification. For some parts of the community, the action — both a literal and figurative cover-up — mattered more. This shows up in social and political discourse all the time: People use misguided actions to dismiss meaningful ideas, and vice versa.

I don’t think there’s an issue in the world that elicits this imbalance more radically than that of Israel. In The New York Times, the author Etgar Keret recently broke down the strangeness of the idea that one must be either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian, instead of holding a nuanced attitude toward both. “Why is it that people refuse to accept this reductive perspective on most aspects of our lives,” he asked, “yet they adopt it without batting an eye when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”

It’s an issue of complete adherence to the idea of either intention or action. Being pro-Israel means you support the intention of Israel; if you stray into a more complicated consideration of that intention’s realization, you’re straying from the path of true faith in the country. If you’re anti-Israel — setting aside, momentarily, concerns of anti-Semitism — you’re adhering to the idea that action is everything, that Israel’s many missteps are what matters, and that the intention behind the action (a safe, holy home for a persecuted people) is immaterial.

Looking behind those differences, though, I see one within the Jewish people that seems to be even more painful and profound. It’s a question of how much faith can do. Can the thoughtful, complicated, ultimately compassionate religion in which I was raised live up to the politics of running a state? And if not, how does allegiance to the state transform allegiance to the faith? At the end of the day, will we choose to be defined by our physical manifestation — Israel — or the intention, Judaism, behind it?

We returned to the Western Wall to welcome the Sabbath. The air was warm but light, the sky a luminous gray, an effect I’d never before witnessed. Seeing the joy with which families approached the wall, joining groups of strangers to dance and sing, made me want to simultaneously laugh and cry.

Sinking in, being part of the whole mysterious something, was blissful. It was a different kind of holiness, one that seemed to emanate out to the whole world rather than pull me in.

As we walked back to our hotel in the moonlight, I typed on my phone: “There’s holiness in St. Louis, too — amongst the shattered glass and paint splatters on Grand.” With that well of grace inside me still open, it was easy to believe. But I came home July 3, and the next week brought the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the sniper killings of five Dallas police officers at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. There was not much holiness to be found around any of those acts, although there was some grace, as when Sterling’s 15-year-old son, Cameron, sobbed as his mother spoke to the press and later told them, “I feel that people in general, no matter what the race is, should come together as one united family.”

That Friday, as I read about the Dallas shootings, my friend Sarah texted me from St. Louis. “Do you feel more Jewish now post-Israel?” she wrote.

I thought about the holiness I felt at the Wall. I thought about Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet under house arrest in Israel simply for writing poetry. I thought about those paintings on South Grand, and the anguish they didn’t manage to fully address. I still don’t know how to respond.

Talya Zax is the Forward’s summer culture fellow. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @TalyaZax


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