By Shir Attias
NFTY-SW Alum, Outgoing NFTY-SW Religious and Cultural Vice-President
Very few people ask me why I care about Israel. I’m your token darker, curly haired girl with a very Hebrew name that screams Israeli so no one asks. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t care because I’m Israeli. I don’t care because I’ve been there more times than I can count. And I most certainly don’t care because someone stood in front a classroom telling me I should. I care because I got to experience Israel as a place, before it became a political issue or my birthright or the topic of some program fulfilling the “Israel engagement” requirement at religious school.
As a child, I fervently defended myself when it came to Israel, though not in the same way I do now. It was ordinary. In Kindergarten, I couldn’t understand why all the soccer moms kept saying I was so lucky to be going there during the summer. Israel was the place where my family lived. It was where I went to the mall with my aunt, to the neighborhood park with my cousins, and to my grandfather’s store. To me, it was no different than when the rest of my friends visited their family in Ohio and California. It was a place with people and regular things to do, and yet people kept telling me I was so lucky. Things changed in 2006 when I prepared to visit in the during the height of the Second Lebanon war and the ooohs and ahhs turned into prayers for safety. That was the summer where we went to Jerusalem instead of the Sea of Galilee because the south was unsafe, and when suddenly there was a story behind this country I thought I knew so well. It was then that I realized there was more to this “place.” The shopping and the playdates and beach visits were all still there, but people back in the states seemed to think it was different. Slowly but surely the inevitable label of “political issue” came into the picture of my Israel story. My defense of Israel grew, peaking during the summer of 2014 when operation protective edge solidified the label of “political issue,” when there were no more oohs and ahhs, no more prayers for my safety, and only attacks for my people’s actions.
But before I was asked to defend Israel, before I found myself alone in my opinions, and before I was old enough to think critically about Israel (about what I did approve of and what I wanted to change), Israel was a real place. It was a place with people I cared about, a culture I was invested in, and a purpose that made sense to me. And this wasn’t the case because I was Israeli, it was the case because I got each and every benefit of ignorance and innocence. I had a reason to care about Israel and to invest myself in it and that reason and that connection is why I haven’t given up yet on fighting to strengthen Israel.
But this often isn’t the case. Growing up Jewish, Israel is always a part of something else, a part of a political issue or a news story or a religious school lesson that almost always is confusing and lacks definitive answers. Israel is often a set of overwhelming labels seldom explained and seldom balanced with personable aspects.
This is the reality that we confronted at NFTY-SW Spring Kallah, focusing on forming primary whys and connections with Israel by breaking down the labels and exploring the aspects we often leave out. In a session about Israeli Music, Ethan Blyn, 2016-2017 NFTY Southwest MVP explained, “In the music group, I was surprised by just how political Israeli music is. It had never dawned on me that Israeli music was powerful source of expression and more than a catchy tune with fun dances.” This surprise was then echoed by the leader of the session, Cantor Ross Wolman from Temple Chai in Phoenix who explained that he was “surprised and saddened that few of the students could name an Israeli artist. Many of them said Matisyahu, who is American. With YouTube, websites, iTunes, and other digital music outlets, we have access to Israeli music we could only dream about a decade ago.”
When participants were asked at the beginning of the program to identify or not identify with statements like “I like Israeli food.” “I have been to Israel before.” “ I have heard about Israel from a young age, whether through religious school, family, summer camp.” “When people bring up Israel, I feel uncomfortable.” “I identify as a Zionist.” “I care about Israel because I am Jewish” “I connect to cultural Zionism.” “I have heard of AIPAC, JStreet, Stand with Us, and other Israel related organizations and I have heard of Zionist and anti-Zionist activities on college campuses.” “I feel like I have a reason to care about Israel;” it was clear that the room held a variety of different opinions and identities that we chose to build upon in forming connections with Israel. As participant Reed Hirshman explained,: “I think I took away that a connection to Israel comes in all different forms – from cultural to religious or even something entirely different. Just like the people in Israel who are very diverse, our perception of Israel is also different. In the program, the availability of different stations that represent different ways to connect to Israel was a great way. Some even caused people to think of another way that they connect to Israel.” Together we worked to make Israel a place: to break down the barriers that are formed by the labels we put on Israel and to find ways to connect with Israel. As NFTY-ites and as Jews, we have an obligation to stay connected to Israel. Yet, as NFTYites we also must recognize the individuality of one’s relationship with Israel, an individuality that parallels that of our diverse relationships with Judaism. It is this recognition that can allow us to foster strong connections with Israel and strengthen our Jewish identities.