“Jews both in the Diaspora and in Israel should always play a part in the survival and welfare of Israel, whether by living there, donating money, serving in the IDF, or representing Israel globally. The ideal Jew should live in Israel, but should always remember their identity as a global citizen, representing Israel around the world.”
This is a direct quote from a paper I wrote as a senior in high school while studying abroad in Hod HaSharon, Israel. My mom recently dug it up and sent me a picture. “Never show this to anyone,” I told her. As my worldview and social network has expanded, it’s hard for me to reconcile my old goals and conceptions with my current ones in both personal and political contexts.
But if I want to find my part in confronting global injustice authentically, I first have to confront how I’ve helped perpetuate that injustice in my own life. And as I begin to spend what may be my last Ramadan in Morocco and the world’s eyes turn towards President Trump, Jerusalem, and Gaza, there is no more prudent a time to do so.
A Simpler World
Unlike many children in Israel and especially in Palestine, my upbringing was blissfully apolitical. I learned about Zionism (the movement supporting a Jewish State in Israel) before I learned about how extreme nationalism can hinder empathy; and I learned about it not as a contested movement but as a mere extension of who I already was and the community from which I came.
As a young girl active in my Jewish youth group, I learned that Judaism and support of Israel, even from afar, went hand-in-hand. My first time out of the country was going to my cousin’s wedding in Israel. We hosted lovely Israelis in our home; neighbors hosted young soldiers just out of the army. I sang the Israeli national anthem at Hebrew School, helped plan Israel’s 60th birthday celebration on the National Mall, and donated my Bat Mitzvah money towards the purchase of bomb-sniffing dogs for the IDF. Supporting Israel felt less like a decision, and more like a tradition that I’d never think to question.
Finally, I embarked on a two-month study abroad quarter in Israel in 2009. The trip was important for me; it was my first time being in a foreign country for a long period of time without my parents. It was one of the first things I did without any good friends. Most of all, it was the first time I felt politically engaged in and intrigued by what I finally thought of as a call to defend Israel against Palestinian and Arab opposition.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the first international issue I had ever closely followed, leading to leadership roles and a broader interest in global affairs. After the High School in Israel program, I began attending AIPAC conferences and co-founded the first AIPAC chapter at my university. As a cohort, we lobbied our Congressmen in support of AIPAC’s talking points, created a petition to partner with Israeli universities, and even presented this case for the partnership at a Board of Regents meeting. As a white girl from Potomac vaguely interested in politics, I had never fought for anything before; I felt like I had a purpose.
College & The Freedom to be Uncertain
Yet one seminar, called “Women and War in the Middle East,” changed everything for me simply by calling into question the perspective from which I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By night, I was preparing to represent my university at the next AIPAC Policy Conference. By day, I was reading about human suffering at the hands of American and Israeli military action and policy.
The next year, driven by my interest in the seminar, I decided to study Arabic instead of Hebrew. And from there onwards, my increasing involvement in the university's Near Eastern Studies department seemed to directly challenge my extracurricular activities.
I’d bump into a friend from Arabic class at a SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality) anti-apartheid-wall demonstration on the way to an AIPAC meeting. I’d eat hummus with my Jewish sorority friends then attend an event on the colonization of Palestinian food. I’d take a picture with my then-role model Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren only to have a crying argument with my parents over the The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian right of return the following week.
The unwavering Zionism I had so eagerly adopted early on was making it dizzying to negotiate between being the “ideal Jew” and an open-minded student of Arabic studies simultaneously. So I took a class on “Middle Eastern Memoirs” which focused especially on autobiographical works from Arab and Jewish writers. The seminar’s professor was also my professor for Elementary Modern Standard Arabic; she was Jewish and had also lived in the Arab world for many years. At the time, she embodied a resolution to the confusion I was feeling; her life path captivated me.
In my final paper for her class I compared the Palestinian documentary Paradise Lost and the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, asserting that both authors had “found a way to use art as a means of escaping the stagnant choices of who to be and how to act under polarizing circumstances...In the end, people want freedom--freedom to be themselves, to be happy, and to be uncertain.” Yes, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and not Palestine or revolution-era Iran. But clearly, re-reading the paper, I was projecting my own role and search for truth in a global conversation.
The Privilege of Slacktivism
I wrote ten years ago that it’s my duty to play a part in the survival and welfare of Israel, before realizing that unconditionally accepting this duty can come at the expense of innocent people. And so it came to be that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the platform on which I finally learned how to critically think and form opinions independent of my upbringing and family. It is the reason I got involved in international affairs, studied Arabic, and eventually, got to where I am today.
As my understanding of justice and peace evolved, I could not reconcile my newly-developed worldview without denying my former activities and opinions in defense of Israel. Eventually, without consequence, I distanced myself and decreased the mental energy I spent thinking about the issue altogether.
And therein lies my privilege as an American Jew. When the opposing posts on my Facebook newsfeed regarding Jerusalem and violence in Gaza overwhelm me, I can just stop reading. Back in college, I exercised my own influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict itself has no implications for or influence over me. The same is not true for my Palestinian friends. My intermittent "slacktivism" will make me complicit in violence until I decide to reclaim my own share of my community's collective responsibility.
The Ideal Jewlie
Under the backdrop of decades of violence and diplomatic stalemate, intensified nationalism, terrorism, a complex web of economic and political interests, revolutions, civil wars, nuclear threats, Trump’s election, the Jerusalem announcement, and most recently, violently quashed protests, it seems like there is nothing I can do to end injustice and fight the inhumane blockade in Gaza and killings of Palestinians.
But I do know I have a voice in my own communities. If I could start a politically pro-Israel student group and create university-level partnerships as a student ten years ago, I can also push friends, family, and colleagues to think more critically, acknowledge injustice, and recognize the complexity of such an iconic conflict that continues to cause so much pain today.
As a Jew in the U.S., I can call out Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in my own community and amplify Palestinian and Arab voices to the people who I know wouldn’t otherwise listen. I can stand up for a more nuanced Jewish education, one that does not compel students to support Israel's military or take up a particular political position based on religious identity. As a Jew in Morocco, I can encourage Palestine-loving Moroccans to understand that just like Donald Trump does not represent me, Benjamin Netanyahu does not represent Israeli people, and faith and nationalism don’t have to go hand-in-hand.
Above all, I can keep reading about daily realities in Palestine and Israel with urgency and an astute mindset. Because before I even knew about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I learned from Judaism the same values on which Ramadan rests: the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, self-discipline, humility, empathy, and coexistence.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!