Israel – A Land of Connections and Divisions

Today’s participant blog post comes from Daniel Hammerman, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program.  Dan’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Dan’s personal blog, which can be found here.

We have all heard the saying, “you can’t fully understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” What we have not all heard, however, is the serious validity of this statement. What I have learned during my time on Yahel is not only do other peoples’ shoes feel vastly different, but it can be profoundly meaningful to walk that extra mile. If we can walk in someone else’s shoes even for a moment or a day, we can find and appreciate an entirely new perspective on life.

This notion especially applies to life in Israel. I never thought living in the Jewish state would change my notion of what is considered reality. However, there are times when Israel’s unique society provides surprising situations that completely deviate from the what is expected. I have personally found myself in many circumstances under which I would find myself talking to someone from a group I tend to not have any contact with. This to me is one of the most special aspects of living in Israel – things are constantly changing, and there is always an opportunity to engage with someone intriguing.

A primary example of this occurred to me during the holiday of Purim. Purim is a holiday filled with joy and pride of being Jewish, and that to me has always been able to bring people together. I remember celebrating Purim at my synagogue in Stamford, and from a young age being able to engage with people I did not generally talk to and share the fun atmosphere of the holiday at our annual Purim Carnival. It did not matter whether we particularly liked each other; it was Purim, so it was time to dress in costume, leave your worries behind, and embrace your fellow Jews in celebration.

This community engagement has always been one of my favorite aspects of Purim, and I greatly appreciated the ability to experience this on a much bigger level while in Israel. Just like at my synagogue, Purim in Israel is able to bring together Jews from across cultural backgrounds and levels of observance. I found this especially meaningful in regard to ultra-religious Jews, such as members of Chabad. Both here in Israel and in the US, I do not generally make an effort to attend a Chabad event or go to places where I need to interact with people associated with Chabad. I have nothing against them, but I personally do not identify with their mission and customs and would rather be around people who are closer to the level I am at religiously. However, on Purim I made an exception. When I saw Chabadniks dancing and giving out mishloach manot (Purim food baskets) in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, I felt it was time for me to loosen up, get in the spirit of the holiday, and join my fellow Jews in celebration.

Purim Festivities in Dizengoff Square Tel AvivPurim Festivities Tel Aviv

Similarly, when I was walking around Lod in costume throughout the holiday, I was able to wish many Jews passing me by a chag sameach (happy holiday), including many religious Jews. An especially surprising moment for me was when a religious man drove past me and wished me a happy holiday, and instead of feeling awkward, I excitedly greeted him in return. Normally I would ignore someone like that because of our strong cultural differences, but on Purim I felt not just willing, but encouraged to embrace my fellow Jew, no matter how different we are from one another. This instance showed a special quality to this day in particular; how the norms of societal interactions are turned completely upside down and I can look at any person with comfort as a fellow Jew. Situations like this make me fully understand the benefit of having Israel as a Jewish state. There is literally no other place where I walk down the street and greet a random person in confidence that they are probably celebrating the same Jewish holiday. This makes me feel truly a part of a community and very much at home, which is one of the most special and rewarding feelings. It is why my connection to Israel has been so strong and persistent.

Party at the ShukDan Purim Festivities Yahel VolunteerPurim Festivities in JerusalemPurimJerusalem

On the other hand, connections formed with certain groups can often lead to divisions with others. Especially in Israel’s complex society, interests and values that you share with a certain segment of the population can inherently contradict and isolate from other groups’ narratives. I also discovered an example of this on Purim through an interaction with an Israeli Arab.  While celebrating a Jewish holiday in the Jewish state, it feels natural to want to share the celebration with others around you. This was how I felt as I was on a monit sherut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv on the evening of Purim. There were many others in the sherut dressed in costume, and I thought it was appropriate to discuss the holiday and greet everyone on the sherut with holiday cheer, including the driver. I had a feeling the driver was Arab, because the taxi drivers usually are, but I still felt the need to wish him a chag sameach. After exiting the sherut, I asked one of my roommates if she thought it was ok to give an Arab a Jewish holiday greeting. I am fine with being wished a Merry Christmas while in the US, so I thought why shouldn’t an Israeli Arab appreciate the surrounding culture and be fine with receiving a Purim greeting? My roommate, however, thought this was an awkward and inappropriate thing to say to an Arab, and after thinking about it further I agreed with her.

I understood why what I did seemed socially awkward, but I coud not understand the reasoning behind this. Why is there such a clear division in regard to this issue? If Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew and are incorporated into many aspects of Israeli society, as I have seen they are, why is it not a comfortable setting to wish them a Happy Purim? I comprehend that this is a very complex question and I may not get the answer I seek, at least not in the near future. I also understand that there could be political undertones involved, such as racist elements that can be inferred from the Purim story and political narratives involving not providing legitimacy to the Jewish holidays while Palestinians are being oppressed. However, what I observed most transparently from this context was that there was a clear division between the Jews, who celebrate Purim, and the Arabs, who want nothing to do with it. And it made me think…do the benefits that come from having a Jewish state inherently complicate relations between Jews and Arabs?

Of course, just because there is separation on this issue does not mean that Jews and Arabs cannot come together on other issues. In fact, one of the greatest things I have learned from my time on Yahel is that it is very easy to find topics that can connect you to others, even when those others are perceivably very different from you. Perhaps the most effective platform I have learned this from has been Juzur, an organization that provides support for young Arabs in the Lod area in search of opportunities for empowerment and future success. Every week, my group of Yahel volunteers has been meeting with a group of Arab university students to establish connections and learn about each other’s cultures. These creative, funny, and sweet individuals are by far my favorite people I have met during my time in Israel. I never thought I would be able to have ongoing positive relationships with Israeli Arabs my age, and yet here we are every week discussing topics such as food, movies, hobbies, and even aspects of Israel that link us together.

These weekly meetings quickly became a community filled with trust, compassion, and sincere interest for each other’s stories. I discovered this fully last week when for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to talk about my experience growing up as a Conservative Jew to an audience of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. During our year together, each Yahel and Juzur participant has needed to choose a week to give a presentation about an aspect of his or her culture. It was clear to me that I wanted to present about my Conservative Jewish background, because that has been a significant influence in my life, but I had a hard time choosing what exactly to discuss. Coming from a background in which most of my exposure to Palestinians has been through a political lens that has portrayed them of being distrustful and even hateful toward Israel and Jews in general, through mediums such as the BDS movement and Students for Justice in Palestine, I have gained the sense that any positive thing I say about Israel to an audience of  Palestinians will be met with harsh protest and inflammatory rhetoric. I expected the result would be vastly different when talking to this group of open-minded individuals, but the thought still stuck in my head that my life experiences could potentially have negative connotations for this community.

Ultimately, I chose to present about the Conservative Jewish experiences that have defined my life the most, which I consider as Camp Ramah, USY, and being the son of a Conservative rabbi. I did explain the importance of Israel in my Conservative upbringing and I got no negative reactions at all, which was a relief. As I expected, I had no reason to worry about receiving backlash from such an open and understanding group. On the contrary, I was greeted with insightful questions from these individuals who were genuinely interested in learning about my Jewish identity. The question that intrigued me the most was when one of the girls, Do’aa, asked me if my being a rabbi’s son means that I have been on the course to becoming a rabbi from a young age. I love getting this question because it is a great opportunity to explain how just because you grow up as the child of a rabbi, it does not mean you want to become one in the future. I also usually describe the freedom my dad has given me to make my own choices about how to keep Judaism, and how he always encouraged me to pursue my interests and follow my own path. I think Do’aa and the other Arabs present were very impressed by this and other special aspects of my Conservative Jewish identity.

I feel so lucky to have been able to share my life story so openly and to get to know these admirable individuals who will forever serve as examples for me. Last night, we had our final meeting with Juzur, and I was invited to deliver a speech about the impact the program has had on myself and my entire group. I am very happy I got this opportunity because it helped me truly put into words what this program has meant to me. One point I emphasized in my speech, on behalf of my fellow Yahel volunteers, was that we all came to Lod seeking to meet people that came from vastly different backgrounds from our own and learn about Israeli society from their perspectives, and Juzur went above and beyond in helping us reach this goal. Not only did we get to meet engaging people and hear their stories, but we also formed personal connections and made friends that will last us for the remainder of Yahel and even after its completion.

Dan Juzur Arab Student Union Israel
Dan Juzur Arab Student Union Israel 4

The experience I have had with Juzur bring many ideas to mind regarding the question of connections and divisions in Israel. Most importantly, I have learned from this experience that the connections that bind us together are much stronger than the things that divide us. These Arabs have had very different lived experiences from us, and their opinions on certain issues can differ as a result from that. But when it comes down to working together to accomplish a task, we have been one cohesive team and there has been nothing to stop us from reaching our goals. In addition, just because there are clear divisions and distinctions among the group (the Purim situation, for example) does not mean there is no potential for us to talk and enjoy each other’s company.

With this in mind, if a group of American Jews can sit with a group of Arabs once a week to bond with one another and work together to fix the problems in their community…why can’t Israeli Jews do the same? I think this example of narrowing divisions between two perceivably different groups provides high potential for groups with similar dynamics to attempt this exercise, which could in turn strengthen coexistence efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. If more Jews and Arabs could have the experience I had and begin to see the ‘other’ as someone no different from himself or herself, it could spark so much opportunity for connections across cultures and strong friendships that could last a lifetime.

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