To start off this new media journey, I figured I would ease you as an audience in with some gentle topics of conversation. So, let’s start with Middle Eastern conflict. Easy, right? I’m not here to lecture you on the opinion I believe in, or provide a dissertation on the historical tensions in the region and how deeply rooted the animosities are. For doing either of those things would probably bore you, and more likely than not expose my inability to formulate politically correct jargon. What I am here to do is share my recent Middle Eastern adventures, as today marks the three month mark of my living in Tel Aviv.
As an American Jew in Israel I feel the experience I am currently having has been painted and sculpted years before my plane ever landed. A bit of indoctrination occurs in our youths, and while I detest the negative connotation of that word it seems to be the most accurate I could formulate. I mean this in the way of constant education and promotion of our “homeland”, a concept I actually wholeheartedly agree with. Yet I found myself looking at Israel the way I looked at my own mother, seemingly invincible and unwaveringly correct. I will say that living and working here for three months has been a lot like the first time I saw my mother cry. I questioned how something so incredible could have any flaws, how something which seemed so infallible could ever falter. Slowly each layer of grandiose was peeled away and what was shown before me was a country like any other. For some, it is this realization of normality that crushes them and their experiences here. For me, the moment I realized that Israel was a real place with real problems was the moment I began to fall in love. For I believe loving someone’s flaws means loving them wholly.
Holon, Israel. It was a humid Wednesday evening that I found myself surrounded by familiar faces in a foreign land. Under a leafy canopy I sat in solace with the comfort of my fellow Jewish students from Hopkins by my side. What brought us together was our wonderful Israeli Fellow, who had spent the year at our university spreading education and awareness about Israeli life and issues. Upon hearing of our arrival in Israel, he immediately invited us over to his family’s home where we were greeted as family. There is something truly magical about being Jewish, and it’s not just found in the words of the Torah or the delight of counting your presents after your Bat Mitzvah. Being Jewish means being able to be anywhere in the world and be treated as family. And maybe it’s because of external hatred and years of systematic and institutional discrimination on an international scale, but the Jewish community is one which thrives on supporting it’s members in every way possible. It was this night, full of food and wine and laughter, that made me feel the intangible peacefulness and safety that Israel has to offer me. Though through the sanctuary I had found, a window existed prompting me to peer outside this bubble.
Café Xoho, Gordon St 17, Tel Aviv-Yafo. Fast forward 24 hours, and I found myself in a tiny cafe decorated with colorful art and the expected decorum of any hipster establishment. The murals on the wall came to life in blues and reds and yellows, and provided the perfect ambiance for a night of open discussion and even controversial learning. Who stood before me were some of the bravest people I have had the honor of hearing speak. Two refugees spoke, one from Eritrea and the other from Darfur. They spoke of pain so nonchalantly, pain that would cripple or nearly end anyone else. Their voices were firm, and they never quivered despite speaking of torture, death, and the agony of family separation. It was the man above who struck me first, who spoke of his dream to go to school for Economics. A dream he was finally setting in motion, having been recently accepted to university in Israel. And then I heard it, Holot.
To provide context to this powerful name, I must first mention why I came to Tel Aviv in the first place. I am here working with an incredible nonprofit organization advocating for LGBTI refugee rights internationally. My work within this community has exposed me to the horrific atrocities that the rest of the population is more comfortable being ignorant of. A huge part of this learning in Israeli context has involved Holot. Holot can be described an involuntary “voluntary” prison, where refugees are strongly suggested to report if they want to avoid a federal prison. Hearing these words fall so easily from this stranger’s lips provoked an overwhelming feeling of guilt within my gut. How lucky I was to have enjoyed a relaxing evening in Holon, when this person so close to my age faces three months in Holot. We stood on the same ground, had the same lungs and brain and heart, yet somehow my being in this country was noble and brave while his was illegal and shameful. It was with this point that I saw the tears of my mother. I want to make it crystal clear that upon the epiphany of Israel’s imperfections, I did not feel disgust for this land. It did not make me defame or discredit this state, but it made me passionate about helping create a change.
“I was not born to take 15 kilo of wheat from the UNHCR” The man who stood before me said these words so casually, yet they have stuck in the recesses of my mind so strongly. This stranger who stood before me had escaped from Darfur only to endure more torture physically and emotionally from his travel throughout Sudan and Egypt before finally reaching Israel. This person before me was me, and he was you. He was a young adult who wanted to learn, to study in university and make something of himself. He was someone who wanted to contribute, to make the world a better place for everyone. He was someone who was destined for greatness, someone who wasn’t born to take humanitarian aid as a livable income. I thought so critically about the world’s treatment of refugees in situations like his, in the infantilization occurring via aid without education. The man who stood before could change the world, and I wholeheartedly believe he will, but faces first three months in prison for trying to find a safe place in Israel. And here is where my realization of Israel’s flaws became most palpable.
As a Jew, and as an American interested in making Aliyah, I feel personally responsible for the Tikkun Olam which each and every one of us should be doing. The man who stood before me was not a criminal, he was a student just like me. He was someone who missed his family, someone who wanted so badly to go home but had no home to go to, someone who wanted nothing more than basic safety and the right to make his life as good as he possibly could. Persecuted in the past and very much still in the present, the Jewish community should be doing all we can to assist those the world deems inhuman or unworthy. For when hate is present, it does not discriminate. Hate is the virus that knows no skin color, no language or accent, and no religion. It destroys us all. And if we allow this type of heinous discrimination to prosper, who says it won’t come for us next?
Once again I find my verbose nature taking over, and an old friend named Billy once told me that brevity, indeed, was the soul of wit. But I find when anything happens to me in this land of holies, I have about fifteen different reactions to it and two hundred different feelings. While the faces and names and backdrops change daily, the most crucial lesson I hope to share is how immensely complicated life is, and how easy and ignorant it is to oversimplify it. I hope to express that supporting a country does not translate to supporting every piece of legislation without criticism. Yet imperfection does not justify abandonment. In fact, it requires quite the opposite. Israel needs my love now more than ever because of its flaws, and because of my fervor for progression and reform. I challenge you to think deeper, not just about Middle Eastern conflict but about absolutely everything you encounter. Passivity may be easier, but it takes passion to change the world.