When Someone Mentions Israel

Efrat Shvili. Jerusalem.

Institution: Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery, Tel Aviv

Growing up in my Reform religious school, I was taught that to be Jewish means to be at least passively Zionist, and that to be Zionist means to be supportive of everything that Israel does. As I got older and began learning about oppression and activism, primarily through social media, I discovered an entirely different perspective. I was overwhelmed by online activists telling me that Zionism in virtually any form is against progressive and ethical ideals and that, in order to be a “good” Jew, I must denounce everything about Israel.

For years, these two views of Israel felt like an unquestionable binary to me. And I didn’t know where I stood. As I continued to educate myself about larger social issues, I began to understand that virtually nothing in life is truly binary. The work of Jewish educators, particularly Yasmine Esther, showed me that Israel is no exception. There are multiple perspectives and truths. It is illogical, unproductive, and often hurtful to discuss any issue without incorporating this nuance. This is certainly true when discussing Israel and Palestine.

The Jewish people are indigenous to Israel. We have a deep and valid connection to the land. We have been persecuted for thousands of years and many countries have turned a blind eye to that persecution. There are many Jews today, particularly Mizrahi Jews, who would not be alive if they or their ancestors hadn’t been able to move to Israel. We deserve self-determination as a people. We deserve a homeland.

At the same time, the modern nation of Israel was created in a way that devastated the Arab people living there. Palestinians continue to face abuse from the Israeli government. There is racism in Israel, against Jews and non-Jews. Palestinians deserve rights, freedom, and self-determination too.

After years of grappling with and learning about this issue, it’s no longer hard for me to believe that those statements can coexist. But getting to this point required confronting my own beliefs and my fear of disagreeing with those I want to support. Although at first there was no outward action, it felt like a test of moral courage simply to allow myself to believe that I could form a nuanced, educated opinion about this issue in the face of two sides screaming at me that I am wrong.

I don’t have the ultimate understanding of this conflict and I don’t know what the solution is. What I have is a deep belief that there isn’t a clear right answer. The best thing we can do is foster conversation and listen. Believing this, I also feel responsible to try to have these conversations with the people around me.

But talking about Israel scares me. The societal discourse around this issue is so heated, so polarized, and so complicated that I don’t know where to start. I am scared of failing to convey the complexity of the issue. I often feel as if I don’t have enough knowledge to say what I want to. The Jewish view on Israel is intrinsically connected to our cultural memory of oppression and displacement. How could I possibly convey that in one conversation?

These difficulties and fears resurface every time someone mentions Israel. In a split second, I am forced to evaluate my fears, the situation, and the personal perspectives of the other people present. I don’t make the same decision every time, but it is also not a binary decision. Sometimes I don’t engage at all. I let the conversation pass. Sometimes I respond briefly in a way that will not foster conversation; a response that is only half-serious.

When I don’t engage I feel conflicted and guilty. I feel as though I am allowing people to remain confident in a one-sided understanding of this issue. I feel as though I am not doing my part to help increase understanding and peace. But sometimes I don’t engage because I am worn down by the public discourse. I am frustrated and heartbroken, not by a lack of understanding, but by a lack of willingness to listen. So many activists, who are neither Jewish or Palestinian, seem to believe that they have the right to have an opinion on this issue without listening to a range of Jewish and Palestinian voices. These are activists who have taught me an incredible amount about topics I care deeply about. They are people I want to support, but I don’t feel like they support me or want to hear my community’s perspective. It can be hard to believe that productive conversations about Israel and Palestine are possible.

When I do engage, I think I give another dimension to the issue. I present the possibility of a third, nuanced option. One of the most impactful conversations I have had about Israel was with a very progressive friend of mine. It was clear that his perspective was heavily rooted in his compassion for the Palestinian people. But the way in which he advocated for their rights failed to see the humanity and complex history of the Jewish people. In this conversation, I was a human connection to the Jewish perspective. I was proof that it is possible to support Jewish self-determination without supporting the oppression of Palestinians.

I am motivated by conversations like this, and by my deep investment in the safety of all Jews and the continuity of the Jewish people. I support a state that will protect and support us. I feel connected to the history of our people in the Levant.

But I also know that I am not an expert on Israel and Palestine. I have not learned all that I can. I am not done learning. I have inadvertently made statements that I don’t stand behind or that aren’t informed in the past, and I’m sure I will in the future. And I am not the most connected to this issue. My family is not Mizrahi. My connection to the land and culture is ancient, not direct. Israel did not save the lives of my family members. I am not Israeli. I don’t have Israeli family. I haven’t been to Israel or Palestine.

Just as I have a responsibility to be an advocate, I also have a responsibility to listen to those who are more directly involved, both Jewish and Arab Palestinian. It takes moral courage to learn, to speak up, but also, sometimes, to sit down and listen.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Israel, Palestine
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How to cite this page

Lerner, Ellanora. "When Someone Mentions Israel." 27 May 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 21, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/when-someone-mentions-israel>.

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