This week's blog post is written by Heidi, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and volunteering for 9 months in Lod.
Israel has held a significant place in my life for as long as I can remember. During my visits to Israel, I fell in love with its culture and energy, as well as the land itself: from the mountains, deserts, and cities to the profoundness of Jerusalem and the modernity and beaches of Tel Aviv. However, my feelings became complicated as I became more educated about Israel’s current state of affairs.
Everything I had known about Israel was songs of praise and defense of the State. My grandfather fled to British Palestine from war-torn Poland, escaping the Holocaust, and later took arms to defend Israel’s claim to sovereignty in 1948. I was raised in debt and gratitude to Israel for my family’s survival. My family is fully invested in the State of Israel and the politics therein, and strongly believe that not supporting Israel is directly engaging in anti-Semitism.
I grew up in a Jewish, Zionist, suburban, middle-class bubble. Leaving home and going away to college was my first opportunity to emerge from my insulated background and begin evolving my political and cultural beliefs. I reexamined my identity and principles, confronting many difficult questions that I felt obligated to answer. It has been seven years since I left home and I continue to explore these questions that still remain unanswered. I am left with newfound uncertainty surrounding many complex issues – the most complex issue of all being my relationship to Israel as a young Jewish person born into the Zionist movement.
In college, I finally had the opportunity to explore my politics independently. I started asking critical questions that I had never had the background knowledge to sew together. The most difficult question I had to weigh was ultimately: what is my relationship to Israel? I became deeply unsettled as I began to learn more about the other side of Israel's historic and current-day issues. I sought out media and literature that contradicted the narrative I was comfortable with. While other issues became easier for me to delineate my views on, Israel remained unclear. What does it mean to support the State of Israel? As a Jew, am I bound to this land? Can I support the Jewish nation but not the Jewish nation-state? Then there are questions surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict and the treatment of Arab-Israelis within Israeli society, all of which only serve to pose more questions. It became clear that I needed to return to Israel. This time, I knew I had to get closer to the communities most directly affected by these issues. I was prepared to learn through diverse perspectives that would challenge my preconceptions. I needed to hear from the people who were inextricably bound to these questions. And if at all possible, I hoped for answers.
I have been here in Israel for a few months now, exploring these issues, my relationship with this country, and what my future role in this space might be. I am currently a volunteer fellow in the city of Lod, an uncommonly diverse place in Israel that is home to significant Jewish and Arab populations. The dichotomies I witness are turning what used to look like a colorful disparate kaleidoscope into a more focused telescope on how organizations and populations connect. Every day I am exposed to a new story, a new lesson, and a new voice. As my relationships with the people around me evolve, I become increasingly invested in their struggles against systemic obstacles and structural violence.
The most meaningful work I do is with the immediate community of Lod. I teach English at an all-boys Orthodox Jewish elementary school. I lead a walking group for Arab women to learn English and socialize in the evenings, an activity that defies conservative societal norms for women in Arab society. I participate in a group that brings at-risk youths together, mostly from the Ethiopian community, to collect food donations from local markets and deliver food baskets to local families without means. I teach an English course that emphasizes shared society values at a community center for young adults from Arab, Ethiopian, Russian, Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox and Secular backgrounds. I am finding an unexpected reward in the simple act of teaching English, in knowing that my students come from various disadvantaged backgrounds and that English will open many doors for them that were previously closed. By working in a center for young adults, I am experiencing firsthand the value and necessity of community, and the immediate impact community structures have on individuals.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned here is the value of process, and how the simple act of being present can have a tremendous impact. Working through my conflicting feelings about Israel is itself a process. I am a long way from having all the answers to my many questions. But I’m here, in Israel, exploring these issues, my relationship with Israel, and how I can help.