You can learn a lot about time spent in a place by looking in cabinets. Today I walked around my office peering into drawers and other spaces inhabited by papers and folders and tiny gadgets that I forgot I have and why I’ve kept them. I’ve been working for Hillel for eight years, and in a week, I won’t be anymore.
One particularly interesting pile looks like this: name tag from JStreet U conference, Stand with Us paraphernalia, Birthright staff manual, fliers for JNF program. It’s a nice summary of irony at work in the life of a progressive Zionist Jewish educator. Luckily, along with my incredible ability to amass stuff, has come a few lessons.
The situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories seems like it’s changing everyday, but one truth remains in place: Israel is losing its PR war. From all sides come grievous accusations, scapegoating, victim blaming, and the omission and skewing of narratives. It’s all hard to digest, and time consuming and exhausting to refute. Enter the best way to attract people to a place: offer them access to as much sex as they want, via beautiful, doe eyed, women who aren’t too smart.
Two years ago, Israel at Heart, an advocacy organization whose goal is “promote a better understanding of Israel and its people,” created and circulated this video on YouTube featuring a woman in a bikini wandering down an Israeli beach, and a man in the sand trying to get her attention. She flirtatiously tries to elude him, until she ends up crashing clumsily into a pier. The takeaway? “Indeed, Israel is a dangerous place.”
I got a fortune in a cookie this week that said, “Progress always involves risk.” (That’s not so much a fortune as an addage, but I’ll overlook that for now.)
Anyway, I looked at this tiny piece of paper for a minute and then I put it in the box where I keep all my fortune cookie fortunes, and went back to thinking about how to write about Jstreet. I went to the conference two weeks ago to be on a panel at Jstreet University, the part of the lobby that’s seeking to build its presence on college campuses, about anti Semitism in the Israel conversation. I love talking about this sort of thing, and the group of students was engaging, dynamic and fiesty. Being theret gave me this incredible sense of historicity, of really belonging to a movement, but also of being profoundly exhausted.
I stopped going to to Hebrew school in the fifth grade. I was tired of being tormented by the kids in the my class, who were, for lack of a better term, jerks. In retrospect, most fifth graders are jerks, but I seemed to lack the emotional stamina to deal with these in particular, and thereby reclaimed my Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons.
I suppose it’s ironic that I ‘m now in the field of Jewish communal service, but I still consider skipping those early years and the ensuing ones (I never went back) as a benefit now. The result is that I had to fill in those gaps myself, as much as one can, and that I never had the “privilege” of knowing Israel in a pure, safe, storybook way like so many folks I know.
It’s here again-my annual Tisha B’av confusion. As usual when I’m searching for meaning, I went to my friends. “Why do you fast?” I asked them. “What does Tisha B’av mean to you?” They cited a variety of things, from mourning a fractured Jewish community to the perpetual derth of social justice in the world. The answer that resonated the most with me, however, was that of my friend who said, “On all other holidays, we talk about how they tried to kill us, but we escaped. Tisha B’av is about how they tried to kill us, and they did.”
In my life as a progressive activist and Jewish educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about change, growth, encouraging people to open themselves to each other, assuming good will. I’m part of a movement that pushes back against those that there will never be peace because of the innately metaphysical nature of the conflict between Jews and Arabs. “They” (the anti semites? The Arabs?) will always want to kill us, so we will have to fight. It’s a perpetual state of war for Jewish survival.
The other day, someone said to me, “If you think you know the answer, it’s not a good question.” The question being, as a progressive Zionist, what do I do with Nakba, which shows up at the end of every semester when I am at my most exhausted.
This is the test, of course. It forces me to hold a lens to each word in that identity, even if it makes me queasy to do so. It’s hard to exist in a liminal space; that is, to make room for both narratives, Israeli and Palestinian, especially when one is exceedingly painful to think about. I can’t reject the Palestinian story, both because of my progressive politics and what I hope is some level of intellectual and moral integrity. But I do struggle with empathy, specifically, how much I can have and for whom. I choose every day to throw my lot in with my people, the Jews, and yet I would like to see a different manifestation of Israeli power, one that fulfills the need for security and pursues peace. I don’t reject the narrative of Nakba, because there is a level of truth to it, but I do reject the assault on Israel as illegitimate, as a pariah because of the way it came into being.
What if no one said your name for an entire year? What if it when it was said, it was mispronounced, and you weren’t there to hear it? The names in books from Yad Vashem have strange letter combinations, lots of consonants placed next to each other, and I stumble over them at first. I make sounds I’ve never made before, and then, gradually, it becomes a language.
At three in the morning on Yom Hashoah, I sit on campus with one of my students under a tent in the pouring rain, reading names. This goes on for twenty four hours. There is an amazing amount of foot traffic for the middle of the night, and lots of people stop to ask what we’re doing.
This week I am embarking on one of the most awkward aspects of my job- tabling for Birthright. At its worst, I feel like a kid wandering around the cafeteria, wondering where to sit, and at its best, surrounded by people who stop by to say hello, I feel like the most popular kid in school.
Yesterday, as I arranged my colorful poster board with pictures of my smiling students riding camels, smearing Dead Sea mud all over each other, and looking with amazement out over Jerusalem, I noticed that the student group who had been sitting there before I showed up was the International Socialist Organization. I looked around for someone who could appreciate the irony of this with me, but found no one. Then, with trepidation and shame, I looked around for the Socialists, and with relief, also found none.