This blog post is written by Shivani Raturi, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood of Haifa.
In the balcony across from the window of my apartment in Kiryat Haim, you often see an old, grey-haired man sitting in a wheelchair, ostensibly staring into space. He is accompanied by someone that seems to be his primary care-giver: she wheels him in and out of the balcony, brings his food out, wipes his mouth after he has eaten, and appears to attempt conversation with him. Despite knowing nothing about the old man and his circumstances, during my first few days in Israel, I drew comfort from this sight. As I tried to find my place in a foreign land, this act of care and compassion was a reminder of home; in the last year of my grandfather’s life, as fragments of his mind gradually disintegrated, it was my mother’s tenderness and defiant resilience that sustained him. It wasn’t surprising then that watching someone being taken care of reminded me of them, especially of my grandfather who in absentia played a big part in bringing me here.
“Why Israel?” is a question that people have asked me and that I have asked myself several times over the last three months. As someone who doesn’t have a clearly visible connection to this land, it sometimes seems like an unlikely choice. And yet, as I go about my life here, I am increasingly discovering more reasons why it makes sense.
In the 1950s, my grandfather, a child of colonial India, had developed a unique fascination for the land of Israel and Palestine, its history and politics. He read everything that he could find on the subject, talked to anyone willing to engage with him and spent his life nurturing this singular passion. When he died in 2021, I found myself struggling to come to terms with the loss; platitudes felt frustrating and despite all the time that I had with him, its ephemerality was all I could think of. I also grappled with remembrance: I wanted to remember him as he was before age and dementia had withered his mind; the whole person that he was - kind and gentle, stubborn and irritable all at once. It was during this time that I serendipitously stumbled upon Yahel. They were asking the same questions that I was thinking of in my own context and doing it in a place that not only fascinated me but also carried significance for me long before I set foot in it.
The first few days of my time in Israel were a combination of numbness and overstimulation. Arriving in Tel Aviv on the eve of Rosh HaShanah meant that you saw a different face of the city that never sleeps. Nearly empty streets, vibrant graffiti, abandoned forklifts, warning signs of “danger of death” on electric contraptions and the deep blue sea: it felt like trespassing through a beautiful house whose owners have gone away for the weekend. At breakfast on my second day in Tel Aviv, I met a pleasant stranger who told me that my Indian accent amused him. He expressed surprise at hearing that I had studied gender studies: “I thought that was an American thing?” I’d spent a lot of time before the program started thinking about how my identity would fit in with others here, but the parts of it which would raise questions surprised me.
Identity, my own and that of others, has been at the forefront of many of my experiences and interactions here. In a session on the history of modern-day Israel, the speaker told us, “catastrophe shapes identity like nothing else” and through my placements and conversations with people from different backgrounds I see this unfold everyday in different ways. At the elementary school in Kiryat Haim, you see children struggle with language. Some of them write their names in English from right to left because it’s Hebrew that shapes their consciousness; others struggle with both English and Hebrew because thinking in Russian is part of their identity. At Horim B’Merkaz (Parents in the Center) in Haifa, the staff makes a conscious effort to make everyone feel welcome despite their linguistic, religious or ethnic identities: here being a mother or a parent becomes most significant.
During our trip to the city of Umm-al-Fahem, our tour guide talked about what it meant to be a “Muslim-Arab-Palestinian Israeli citizen”. It shed light on the many, often disparate, elements that constitute identity and their potential to sit in conflict with each other. It also demonstrated something that is said ad nauseam in liberal arts classrooms: context is key. Our identities, and consequently our perspectives, are shaped by a complex set of factors, each of which is encoded with social power. We experience the world not as it is, but from our vantage points. What is the dominant imagination and how are we placed with respect to it? What is the narrative that we are reacting to and what has it been shaped by?
When people ask me how different or similar India is from Israel, I find myself returning to these questions about identity. Representation can be so overwhelmingly complicated: which India do I talk about? My experience of my own country is circumscribed by the social location that I occupy in it, not unlike that of an Israeli citizen or resident. How then do I adequately and authentically represent the multitudes that it contains? I also feel wary of comparing two distinct places because often highlighting similarities runs the risk of being reductionist and flattening the very specific contexts of both. At the same time, there are patterns and systems that seem unmistakably similar in both societies.
A common slogan that school children in India are taught is “unity in diversity”. The idea is that we are an amalgamation of many cultures, religions, languages and other identities, and it is through this distinctiveness that we derive our composite national identity. And yet, after 75 years of independence, preserving this diversity and undoing the deep inequalities that fracture our society continue to be some of the biggest challenges that we face as a country. In contemporary Indian politics, identity is a battleground and suffering is weaponised to maintain an unjust status quo. Thus, you will find an India that is warm, hospitable and resilient in awe-inspiring ways, but you will also witness one that is riddled with discrimination and injustice. Its reality is underpinned by these paradoxes and it is in this coexistence of contradictions that I see similarities between my native country and the one that I have the privilege of being a visitor in. As an outsider in Israeli society, I have been welcomed with a disarming warmth. From the Lotto ticket salesperson on my street to a random stranger at Ikea, I have found kindliness in the most unlikely places. But there is also much about this place that I continue to grapple with and try to make sense of.
How do we reconcile differences that seem insurmountable? When there is nuance in reality, how do we guard against rhetoric that is totalising and simplistic? When problems are systemic, how do we understand suffering and individual responsibility and complicity? How do we find balance between conviction that is necessary to rally for a cause and uncertainty that is essential to enable openness? How do we engender empathy?
I often wonder what my grandfather would make of my experiences here. The smallest things remind me of him these days; a book that I know he would have liked, a conversation that I wish I could share with him. When little Noa hugs her grandfather on Shabbat, I think of how my Nana reserved his deepest affection for me. In times of uncertainty and turmoil, I find myself turning to memory to ground myself. At the same time, I am struck by how deceptive, or selective, memory can be. My nostalgia has a tendency to gloss over uncomfortable questions. My grandfather was a product of his context in the same way that I am of mine. I know that there is perhaps much that we would disagree on today and I need to remind myself of that to keep him authentically alive in my memory.
I came into this program with an abstract sense of this place and its politics. I didn't know a single person in the whole country, but how quickly that has changed has been a heartwarming lesson in the human ability to form connections despite differences. It also gives me hope in a time of despair. Some conflicts may never cease, but in an atmosphere of alienation, even acknowledging another person’s humanity can be a form of radical resistance and peace-building. I don’t know how my relationship with this place will change with time, but for now, through conversations over lunch at Isha L’Isha and dinners at no. 26, I know that my being here makes some sense.