It’s happening to me. I can’t seem to help but imagine a future for myself in this country. Whether I’m in a kibbutz in the north, amidst the Jerusalem bustle, or hiking in the Negev, I keep picturing the life I could lead here.
I never thought that I, of all people, would ever consider making aliyah. I’m not a Zionist. I don’t believe that I have any special right to this land. I can rationalize the need for Israel as a safe haven for persecuted and disenfranchised Jews from all over the world—as it once was for my own survivor grandparents. Where else were Holocaust victims, exiled Jews from Arab lands, and Beta Israel caught between famine and civil war supposed to turn? No other country would accept these people in such large numbers, no matter how desperate their circumstances.
Yet, I can hardly include myself in this category. While I hold an Israeli passport, in truth I’m a middleclass, educated American. In the Californian community where I was born, anti-Semitism is but a distant shadow—a half-forgotten memory of what once was or muted whispers from abroad. When the Yahel Social Change Program ends in June, I can easily go back and lead a comfortable, fulfilling life in the States. If I have other options, I wonder if it’s moral for me to act on my Jewish privilege and move here—to act on my right of return while thousands of diaspora Palestinians cannot. My aliyah inclinations are clearly not the results of nationalist sentiments.
Neither can I offer any spiritual explanations. I’ve never felt deep pangs of longing for my ancestral homeland. When I stand in front of the Kotel, I feel nothing. Or more accurately, I feel whatever I had been feeling the moment before. Nothing changes. I look at the weeping Haredim around me and try to be compassionate, but the reality is that I just can’t relate. Living here hasn’t made me renounce my atheism and decide I have a soul.
So why is the prospect of staying here so tempting? This question baffles me, especially since making the move would mean sacrifices in terms of family, career, and general standards of living. While my desire to stay is largely a mystery to myself, I can begin to grasp at an explanation. Counterintuitively, it seems that the very factors that should make me run from here are what attract me the most.
To borrow an expression from a recent Jewschool blog post, my Israel has warts. Hovering over the ancient ruins, Mediterranean beaches, and mesmerizing deserts is a profound ugliness. This is a land of contradictions; the disturbing and the beautiful intertwine within the same places, often within the same individuals. I have been shown such unconditional warmth in this country. Strangers immediately welcome me into their homes, feed me, and express genuine concern for my wellbeing. Yet, on a daily basis I encounter the most blatant bigotry I have ever witnessed.
In my Israel, bright, promising teenagers tried to convince me that the entire population of Gaza should be wiped out in retribution for rocket fire. In my Israel, no one seems to know (or cares to know) that many Bedouin live in their historic villages without access to water, electricity, or health care. In my Israel, young people think it’s funny to say the n-word and watch me flinch. In my Israel, a local politician compared the older generation of Ethiopian-Israelis to the Israelities who were slaves in Egypt and had to die off before their nation could enter the promised land (implying that these immigrants have nothing of value to offer Israeli society). There is so much loss and suffering here as a result of stubborn unwillingness to understand.
All of these injustices can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know how to act, how to avoid apathy or despair. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Israelis respond to the news of some tragedy or another with a shrug and the words, “this is how life is in Israel.” And yet—maybe because Israeli society is so new, dynamic, and relatively tiny—real change seems possible to me here in a way it never did in the States. Thanks to Yahel’s learning component, I know that the work we are doing here in Gedera fits into a larger context. Rabbi Levi Lauer, founder and director of Atzum, advised that “the answer to the black hole of metaphysical uncertainty is to ground yourself in a way that your actions have daily consequences—for yourself and your society.” All over this country, activists are doing exactly that.
Their numbers may be small, but novel kinds of communities are forming. Israelis committed to creating social change are coming together. Where others find reasons to dismiss reality or leave the country, this generation hears a call to action. In the newly recognized Bedouin village of Qasr A-Sir, Bustan is helping to create a sustainable, local eco-economy. In courtrooms throughout Israel, Tebeka fights for justice by offering free legal services to Ethiopian-Israelis who have been the victims of discrimination. Tira’s Q school addresses Israeli education and employment gaps with its unique afterschool programs for Arab children, which combine English-learning with personal and communal development. And of course here in the Shapira neighborhood, Friends by Nature runs a number of programs to foster community and empowerment among Ethiopian -Israelis of all ages.
It may seem bizarre, but every time I hear a racist comment, see Sudanese and Eritrean refugees at the South Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, or notice the sudden difference in living conditions as I walk from Shapira towards New Gedera I feel compelled to stay. Each injustice is an opportunity to further understanding and to get to work. And as Rabbi Lauer has often repeated to the Yahelnikim, you need to have partners to make social change happen. There are plenty of those here.
I’ll be in Israel for another year. And, after that? Who knows? The future is, as always, uncertain, but the last six months have already opened my mind to new passions and possibilities. We’ll see where they lead.