A Jew in America Becomes a Jew in Israel

I hear that it’s not easy raising a good Jewish kid in Trump’s America and I believe it. My husband and I and our three children left the United States for Israel three years ago, and I do not envy my U.S. friends the challenges of explaining to their kids how the nation has set at its helm a man who degrades women, mocks the disabled, stokes racial hatred. But I watch those parental challenges play out from something of a distance. My problem is not resisting the clear political other; my problem is what to do in a sovereign Jewish State when the State itself is Other.

Moving to Israel as someone on the political left, I knew there would be plenty of parenting challenges, but I imagined the primary concerns would be to help my children live with the fear of violence and make sense of the contested claims to this land. Indeed, our two older kids, now 11 and 13, are attracted to the powerful Israeli nationalist narratives that circulate everywhere here, and we work to help them see that Palestinians too have an authentic tie to this land. It helps that the notions of human equality and humanitarian responsiveness are deep in the soil of our kids’ moral identities. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they were raised on the stories of the heroic resistance of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the embrace of immigrants by the Statue of Liberty, and the other American values that seemed to us to dovetail fully with Jewish values.

And so, as it always is with parenting, the thing that you don’t expect is the thing that comes at you with all its force. What does it mean when the State—the eminently fallible, but also immensely powerful, ultimately responsible State—is you?

For me, growing up as an American Jew—even one who affiliated very strongly as an American—still meant growing up as a minority. The people in charge were not “us.” None of the uniforms were really ours. From the Brownie Scout to the Commander in Chief, others wore the symbols and the badges and the responsibility of civic leadership. The idea of a Jewish president seemed less likely than a woman president. I did not know a single Jewish army recruit, police officer or firefighter (clearly, an effect of late-twentieth-century class politics as well). I did not know of Jews in Congress, though I knew we had friends there, in spite of the Christmas trees. The Supreme Court was the one place I knew Jews could go, and I was proud of that, because the Supreme Court was always on the side of right, sometimes even against the other branches of government. To me, a Gen-X Jewish girl living in the Midwest of America, the face of authority in the United States was not my own. The stories of American slaves chagrined me, and as I grew up and learned that even some Jews had held slaves, nonetheless, I did not feel torn from within by these stories of national origin, because I was not the State and the State was not me. I was a Jew. When I became Israeli, suddenly the State and I were one. The faces of authority and of power were my face. From the olive branches and menorah on the cover of my passport, to the Hebrew date of my birth inside, to my photograph. More to the point, though, my children felt and feel themselves the children of the State: protected, loved, raised by a national entity whose care and direction they will inherit as adults. Leadership training isn’t for a cordoned-off world of Jewish leadership made up of your Jewish Federation, your synagogue, your day school community. Here, leadership training is the real deal, from scouts to the army, on up. For my schoolage kids, Israeli soldiers are the familiar older siblings of friends, not the predominantly brown, black, or white-blond boys often quite distant from middle-class American Jews. The policemen are Jewish, the Knesset is almost exclusively Jewish, the prime minister and president are Jewish.

And what this means is that when a citizen does not like the things the prime minister does (and often, really does not like them), when a citizen does not like the very laws of the land, the policies proposed, the decisions made, it means that the citizen is protesting as oppressive or morally wrong the Jewish star, the blue stripes of the Israeli flag that resemble the tallit, a prayer shawl. It means a gap between the olive branches and menorah and the photograph inside.

This is a lot for a kid to manage. And it comes to expression all the time.

In late winter, I went to a meeting of Jerusalemites who were deeply worried about the fate of the 35,000 African refugees who live here in Israel, only about 10 of whom had been granted official refugee status. At the meeting, I learned that there were approximately 300 young people, mostly men, in their early twenties, who had escaped Sudan and Eritrea about 10 years ago as orphans, after harrowing journeys. They were “adopted” by the State of Israel and raised in kibbutzim and youth villages. They were currently living in Israel legally, on visas they needed to extend every two months. Some had done a version of national service, all spoke Hebrew, all saw Israel as their only home. In February, they were told that they could no longer stay and that for a few hundred dollars they should board flights to unknown African countries where nothing good awaited them. Those of us at the meeting (more than 150 citizens of Jerusalem who turned up in response to a last-minute Facebook announcement) were asked to pledge to serve as matched partners for these young people, in an attempt to show the government that they were indeed a part of Israeli society, with an address and a support network. That they deserved life and that the Jewish State had to answer this moral imperative.

I signed up. When I got home, the kids asked what it was all about. As I began to explain, I saw their faces grow confused.

“Why does the government want to send them back?”

“But who really wants to send them back?”

“Are they Jewish?”

We can see the Knesset from our living room and kitchen windows. “Why would the Knesset not want to take care of people who crossed the desert and have no parents?”

“Who will help them if they go to Rwanda?”

“But they have our visas, right? From the same misrad hapnim (Ministry of the Interior)?”

At the ages of seven, 11, and 13, it seems right to protect children from a good portion of the world’s travesties, if they live under fortunate enough circumstances that protection is possible. I didn’t tell my children what had happened to these boys on their way through the desert, or what happened to their parents. It was enough to explain why we wanted to try to help some of these young people. And in the last few months, as Netanyahu first made a deal with the U.N. that would resettle some of these refugees in the U.S. and Canada, and absorb others into Israel, and then within hours reneged on the deal in order to save his coalition government, we have watched with anxiety. The kids see the signs dotting our neighborhood that say “Stop the deportation!” and try to explain to some of their friends why our family does not call these refugees “mistan’nim,” infiltrators, but instead, “plitim,” refugees. This is but one of our recent challenges.

Last year, on Jerusalem Day 2017, my husband participated in a peaceful demonstration blocking the path through the Arab Quarter. In past years, hundreds of demonstrators have run wild through the shut-down quarter, yelling “Death to the Arabs,” and frightening the inhabitants and shopkeepers. My husband knew that he would be removed by the police and he was ready to demonstrate peacefully and be removed peacefully. He demonstrated because petitions to re-route the parade had routinely been blocked. He felt that other than writing resistance, this was the only path left to oppose a celebration of Jerusalem Day that makes one people’s triumph an opportunity for the degradation of another people (two peoples who must continue to share one city 364 other days a year).

The policemen who removed the protestors swore at them, and one decorated officer twisted Ori’s arm, and threw him to the ground calling him “garbage.” This was after Ori had told him he knew that the officer was doing his job and that he would leave peacefully. My son and daughters wrestled with this story for months last year, in the season of the celebration of Israeli independence and the 50 years since the Six Day War.

What does it mean when your own police force engages in abuse instead of law enforcement? When your own parliament supports returning refugees to conditions tantamount to death by starvation, disease, or violent crime? When your own prime minister, whose latest photo op was staged at the kotel, your kotel, race-baits or bows immediately to political pressure with lives in the balance? When the sovereign Jewish State, like all other States, reveals itself to be human, driven by popular convictions that sometimes elevate and sometimes degrade?

What happens when Jewish sovereignty sometimes bends the long arc of the moral universe away from justice?

An older Israeli friend once told me that when her aged mother came from Tunisia to Israel many decades ago, a police officer gave her a ticket for leaving her possessions somewhere outside the confines of her poor immigrant dwellings. And this Tunisian woman began to cry, saying, “A Jewish policeman, a Jewish ticket.”

Her tears were tears of gratitude. Of disbelief. At the historical miracle of a Jewish state with uniforms and badges and parliament and newspapers. That she had lived to see that day, to stand on that sacred soil.

If an Israeli officer wants to give me a ticket for a real offense, I will accept it. But as a Gen-X American immigrant in 2018, the ticket will not bring me to tears. 

I can strive to understand the Tunisian woman’s tears, but I confess I cannot feel her miracle from the inside. Sovereignty means so much complication. “You mean there are also Jewish criminals in these jails?” my son asked me, when he saw the outside of an Israeli jail. “Yes, some,” I said.

A Jewish state has its criminals and it has its heroes and it has its masses. Just as in the biblical stories, our leaders are excruciatingly human, only now there is no divine voice guiding or reproving them. We do have some prophets who go unheard at the city gates. Sometimes the face of the state is exactly the face we want it to be, as when it adopted those 300 hundred orphaned refugees in the first place.

I understand the confusion of my children as they begin to perceive the burdens of sovereignty. I sympathize with them. This was a particular confusion spared me. But perhaps it is not a bad thing to know from the very start that we are implicated. (Perhaps it is even a special dimension and a special charge of twenty-first century knowledge: the clarity that in this network of a world, we are all implicated.) It’s true that my own ancestors did not own slaves, but there was an ease in America to imagining that I was not responsible for that story. It is not original sin that I want my still-innocent children to carry within them; it is not guilt they should come to know, but responsibility.

I think what I will tell my children is that even in a Jewish state, it is the kol d’mamah dakah, the super-thin thread of an internal voice, that must guide you to know when the State is you, and when you feel its path diverges from yours. Then, if you’re courageous, you don’t walk away, but you speak that kol d’mamah dakah, and you work on your State, and you work in your State. This is what it means to identify with a nation and to live as a Jew in the modern sovereign State that is Israel. 

Ilana Blumberg is Director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University and author of the prizewinning memoir Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books and the forthcoming Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American.