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Beyond the Black and White: On Questions for Community Change

This week's blog post is written by Naomi, a Yahel Social Change Fellow currently living in Lod, Israel.

At a family barbecue last year, my father presented those in attendance with the question: are you a Zionist? It was almost laughable, the passion and anger with which he asked this question. The thought of receiving a “no” was, to him, an impossibility. While the majority of the guests laughed him off, I found myself silenced by a fear of answering the question honestly. Four words, which were a rhetorical joke for many, seemed to me like a looming cliff: to dive into the waters of a real response would only create confusion, isolation, and hurt. However, to not answer honestly was a trap in and of itself. It would only feed this attitude which had limited my understanding of my own Jewish identity in so many ways. I didn’t necessarily know if I wasn’t a Zionist, but I certainly didn’t know if I was. Instead of an easy answer, all I had were more questions.

I’ve been in Israel now since October. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have come here at all. My relationship to this place was so fraught that the thought of coming back made me angry. No matter how I tried to live my Jewish life, it always felt like there was a pressure to define my relationship to Israel; yet, it felt like no one would give me the space to explore the politics of the country with any real honesty. The fact that I had to constantly grapple with the topic was suffocating—why couldn’t I be a Jew in Canada and have that be enough? Then, something happened which caused me to change my perspective: the person I loved moved here for academic reasons. Driven by the need to be with them, I sought out opportunities that led me to Yahel. Despite my many qualms, I found myself boarding a plane to Israel.

Four months later, I am no less torn by internal debate. However, I now have new perspectives that shape the intensity of this conversation in my head. I don’t know if the debate is ever one which will cease, but in being here, I have found a new way to interact with it. The question of “are you a Zionist?” takes a back seat to the many questions that living here poses: How do I relate to those Jews who deeply love and value the safety that Israel seemingly gives them? Am I aware of the many complex issues surrounding race, class, immigration, and gender that go beyond statehood? What does it mean to engage only ideologically with a country that has a very real presence and place in global politics, as well as the daily lives of many? Do I get to bow out of the conversation when my privilege allows me to have certain rights over others?

Living and working in Israel has helped me realize that not every question needs an answer. While some of the questions I posed above have tangible resolutions, many don’t—and perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t. Every day, I go into spaces as an outsider, where those who live here grapple with issues that go beyond questions of black and white. Being a Jewish Canadian working with Arab Israeli women, I have had to take a step back from any assumptions I have about their relationship to this country in order to understand their realities and visions for change. A couple of weeks ago, we met with a group of students who came to Lod during their 10-day tour of Israel. They asked us many questions, often political, that in a lot of ways felt unanswerable. For example, one student asked us if we “believed in a one or two-state solution?”. Of course, many people have passionate responses to this question, but this inquiry of such a major, political nature ignored the community work which happens here in order to make life livable. In asking such questions, these students ignored the intricacies of inter- and cross-community work that relies on the agency of those within the community to make useful social change. Similar to the question of “am I a Zionist?”, these questions denied the grey area that lived reality requires.

The ability to create change out of the grey area holds far more potential than seeking to answer questions to which there are no easy answers. Instead of “Are you a Zionist?”, perhaps the better question lies in our intentions—the purpose behind our desire to be here. Is our intention to claim land with no further purpose, or is it to find a space of belonging for all based around common values? If so, how do we shape those values and how do we do so while in conversation with those who we see as an other? If there is one thing that I have learned in my time here, it is that the grey area begins when we start to listen. If our questions do not lead us to better listening, and thus understanding, what purpose do they serve? Our common values must be continually re-assessed, because in that re-assessment, we add grey to those black and white ideas which limit us in our ability to see sustainable futures. And without that vision built on the common value of understanding, no change that we work toward will have the necessary impact that our communities deserve.

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