a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Reflections on Israel-Three Weeks Later

Posted on: December 5, 2011

Be sure to continue reading the blog posts of Michael, Arthur, and Scott who are also blogging about our time together in Israel.

Three weeks ago today I landed in Newark International airport after leaving my friend’s apartment in the French Hill neighborhood of north east Jerusalem, taking a light rail to a bus station, a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and another bus from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion airport.  After spending over an hour trying to get through passport clearance, and hour of luggage digging, and another two hours of questioning.  After a restless overnight flight to Brussels, sleeping on a fake leather couch in Brussels airport for five hours and another eight-hour flight home. I was exhausted.  Spiritually exhausted.  Physically exhausted.  Emotionally exhausted.  I wept.

I wept as I left the Old City for the last time and promised to return.  I wept as I boarded the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  I wept as the wheels of the plane touched down in Newark.  I don’t know why I cried.  I don’t know what I felt.  Three weeks later, I still don’t know. 

When I uploaded the first 150 pictures on Facebook I described Israel in this way: “How can I describe Israel? It’s beautiful in so many ways and ugly in many others. It’s breath-taking and it’s unbelievable. It’s spiritually moving and spiritually exhausting. It’s filled with beautiful people both seen and hidden. I know that I love it, but feel conflicted for doing so.”

It’s hard to be in Israel and not think about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  It’s hard  to be in Israel and not think about Jews of Color-marginalized Ethiopian, Arab and Mizrahi Jews.  It’s hard to be in Israel and not think about Jews making settlements in Palestinian territories.  It’s hard to be in Israel and not think about the Bedouins homes being destroyed.  You can’t take these people, these groups, and compartmentalize them into neat boxes.  You do that when you’re in the comfort of your American home around a Shabbat table of lefty-Jews, not when you’re in Israel.  In Israel all of these realities, these conflicts, are in your face-even when they are not. 

Our day at Yad Vashem, the beautiful and moving Holocaust memorial near Jerusalem was one of my most difficult days, but not for the reason that you may think.  As we left the large, cavernous museum which is constructed so that you enter the museum in a narrow, dark, low place and leave literally elevated above the ground and over-looking the hills of Jerusalem I felt strange.  We started our tour of the museum in a large group of about 20, but as we progressed the group thinned out.  I took off my earphones that allowed me to listen to our amazing guide, Ran, and instead went through the museum at my own pace.  I watched moving videos of survivors talking about their experiences.  Three stood out:

 

 

[I'm going off memory]

One was an older woman talking about when the soldiers took her mother.  She recalls the fierce knock at her door.  She tells us that mother put her in a closet with her brother.  She remembers hearing soldiers ordering her mother around, asking if there were others.  She remembers hearing her mother ask to get her coat before she left.  She remembers her mothers face, her urging that she and her brother remain quiet.  She remembers her mother saying goodbye.

A woman recalls standing before a mass grave as a young girl.  The smell of the bodies, the sound of the cries of those who were not yet dead.  She remembers soldiers demanding that she remove her clothing.  She can’t do it, can’t take them all off.  She remembers hearing a shot, then falling onto the bodies.  She remembers being alive, and digging herself out of the bodies of the dead and dying around her.

A child was given to friends[relatives] during the war.  She would have to curl up in a steamer trunk whenever the doorbell rang.  Sometimes she’s stay in that trunk for hours.  After the war, whenever the doorbell rang she would run to the trunk and hide.

We left the darkness  of the museum and literally had to squint because the sun was so bright.  The museum is constructed to be dark and narrow.  Looking at the hillside after my eyes adjusted to the light I felt something deep within my soul.

We followed our guide to the Hall of Remembrance and then to Children’s Memorial where I lost my shit.  The memorial is fairly small, but incredibly powerful.  There are only 5 candles in the completely dark room.  Hundreds of mirrors and prisms make it seem that there are hundreds of flickering light, a testament to the millions of children who lost their lives during the Holocaust.  To make it even more powerful, the names of each child is read aloud.  Their name, their age, and where they are from-calmly read rings through your ears and echos like the beating of your heart.  Ran, our fearless leader, asked us to remember one name.   From the moment I set foot in the dark room I felt tears burst from my eyes.  I’d cried on the trip so far, but not like this.  I stopped walking and leaned on a railing.  As I felt others brush and bump past me, I wept openly and violently as I tried to process how this could happen.  How could people could kill other humans just for being different.  How are people filled with so much hatred, ignorance, and fear.  How do people of “faith” have the ability to do such ugly things?  How could the world stand by and watch all of this horror.  I wept for the names of the children in my ears.  There were millions.  Millions of lives lost.  Whenever I heard my nephews ages, I cried harder and wondered how.  I wonder why.  I wondered how it happened then I remembered-It is still happening today.

It took me a very long time to leave the room.  When I finally emerged from the darkness back into the light our group was waiting for me to move on to the next part of the day.  My sunglasses hid my eyes, but not my swollen and red nose.  I fished out a tissue to blow my nose and a man named Greg tried to put his arm around me in comfort.  I brushed him away-I was sad, I was angry, I was confused.  I needed to be alone.  What we experienced that day was incredibly difficult.  Seeing the product of fear, hatred, misunderstanding that resulted in the lives of millions people [my people] was more than I could bare.  The Erika who spent 31 years as a black christian was in rage.  An estimated 12 million Africans were removed from their homes during the slave trade.  Approximately 1.4 million of those people didn’t make the passage.  Nearly 1 million in Rwanda and almost 1 million people have died in Darfur.  In the U.S.,  as white settlers continued Westward expansion, millions of indigenous people were killed, entire nations were destroyed, and those that remained were herded up and placed on reservations where they remain today. 

In Israel a significant portion of the population is regulated to specific neighborhoods, they must always have identification on them, they can be stopped and questioned at any time, they can be rounded up without cause.  It sounds way too familiar to me, it felt way too familiar while I was in Israel.  From the moments I read the propaganda released by Nazi Germany before the War and during to the time I walked out of the Children’s Hall I wondered why most people refuse to see how similar the situation is.

If I could come up with a solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict it would look like this:  Jerusalem (and all Holy Sites) are neutral for everyone.  Whether you’re a Jew, Christian, or Muslim holy cities/sites, because of their spiritual significance, are neutral territory.  Israel would be its own state.  Palestine would be its own state.  The two states would sign a peace agreement that would allow both Palestinians and Israelis the same rights, liberties, and abilities to travel between the two states.  The agreement would also make peace with the countries/allies each government already has (so that the region would remain peaceful).  Don’t ask me about the borders of my Utopian Israel, because I don’t have an idea.  My gut says Palestine should get the West Bank and Israel Gaza Strip, but I haven’t a clue.

I spent ten days in a country that is filled with racial and religious tension.  Being an American Jew in Israel comes with its own set of baggage.  Being a black American Jew in Israel comes with another set of baggage.  Being a black, gay American Jew in Israel feels entirely different.

14 Responses to "Reflections on Israel-Three Weeks Later"

I’m trying not to cry at my desk. I feel your love. I feel your despair. I feel your rage. This blog post is… It simply is.

Thanks, Michael. It’s incredibly difficult to be back, for a variety of reasons. It feels incredibly horrible to want to go back to Israel for a variety of reasons. It’s still hard to figure it all out. I’m glad you liked the piece :)

I would be interested in knowing why it feels incredibly horrible to want to go back but if you don’t feel like sharing, I understand.

Oh Dena…it’s just so…complicated. It feels hard to be there with my American/Western Ideals/expectations/thoughts/ideas. Without realizing it, I’m trying to impose them onto a society that is completely (thankfully) different than my own. As earnest as it may be. It also feels a bit guilty because being in Israel as a Jewish person invalidates the Palestinians who live there. One of the trip participants made a comment that I cannot forget. She said, “I could make alliyah and would be given full rights and there are people who live here now who are treated as second-class citizens. How is this fair?”

Erika, Erika – your words make my heart ache. The tears are welling up as I remember us saying goodbye in Jerusalem – for that was the beginning of my saying goodbye to Israel as well. I too am having a difficult time adjusting. I can’t seem to put the words to my emotions – thank you for lending some of yours.

I miss you, Gayle! I don’t want to give you heart ache, just warm fuzzies for all of the memories we made and share.

This is beautiful, my dear. Thank you.

Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s been feeling that something’s not quite right since we got back. Guess we left more of ourselves over there than we thought.

BTW, the Arabic inscription in your picture (just one of your many beautiful ones) is the phrase that introduces chapters of the Qur’an: bismillah al-rahaman al-rahimi — “In the Name of G-d the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” There were plaques with that phrase in all the shuks in Jerusalem and Istanbul, and I’m kicking myself for not buying one. At the very least, I could have earned a nice big profit for the merchant, with my pitiful haggling skills.

Now I’m not kicking myself for not getting one! In the meantime, I’ll frame this one and hang it up.

It’s SO STRANGE and ODD to be back. It feels, odd. I can’t even call it anything else. Everything is happening around me in the way that it happened before I left, but I’m different. I left little bits of me all over Israel (and not just because of my Negev pitstops;) )

thank you, thank you for this honest and heartfelt post my friend (and your other trip posts too!). being at yad vashem broke my heart in so many ways. like you, i couldn’t help seeing all of the terrifying similarities between how jews were treated at the beginning of hitler’s rise to power and how palestinians are treated today. what’s even more terrifying is that there are people who will call us nazis, who will say that we are “self-hating jews” who want all of israel dead, for daring to make that comparison.

and, despite all of the hostile rhetoric here in the states and heartbreaking realities in israel, i miss it, too. i feel very much like i left pieces of myself there. being back is still very strange and i miss all of you a lot.

Really interesting to read your final thoughts about Israel. I noticed some of the same similarities between Israel today and Germany’s history after visiting Yad Vashem.

Israel left a huge impression on me, too – even more so as a gay American. I actually only came out when I was in Israel!

Were you in Tel Aviv ;)

Incredible.

I was thinking on this topic of Israel and Palestine when a certain republican candidate said something about Palestine or Palestinians not existing, and I wondered if the best answer would be to forget both and establish a religiously and racially free country. This fighting is mindless and destructive not just physically, but morally. It’s never okay at any time, anywhere, to harm another human being, no matter how justified you feel you are. Nazi’s felt justified just fine in creating death camps, to ‘reclaim’ Germany for the Aryan ‘race’. Some Israelis feel justified displacing Palestinians from Israel, and Palestinians feel justified attacking Israeli’s to get them out of Palestine. We as people should be so far beyond killing each other for land that doesn’t belong to anyone. What happened to realizing that this is God’s planet? His land, His resources, his silver, his gold, his mud, his water, his sand? What a silly thing, for man to be so bold as to insist that anything of this earth is naturally theirs. That’s the sort of attitude that ends with self-righteous abuse of others.

Oh Colleen, I’m feelin’ you on this one, sister. But it’s So. Damned. Hard. One of those “guilty” feelings I get about my love/hate relationship with Israel is the joy I felt by being a Jewish woman in a Jewish state. There is something really remarkable about being in a Jewish state that I can understand and see the importance of having such a state, especially when there aren’t any other places in the world that are Jewish all of the time. There is something to going to restaurants and being asked “Meat or Dairy?” There’s something amazing about seeing mezzuzahs on every single door step every where you go. There’s something about hearing Hebrew being spoken. There’s something about being in a place that is a part of the oral and written history of your tradition.

Don’t worry. I didn’t drink all of the koolaid. There is something equally fucked up that a nation formed out of the horrors, ignorance, fear, and hatred of another nation is now playing out the same horrors, ignorance, fear and hatred. Israel isn’t putting people into death camps, but building cement walls, caging people like animals, denying basic human rights.

It’s not black and white. It’s not even a shade of grey. Being there, I only scratched the surface. I didn’t even see very many Jews of color, or people of color for that matter, unless they were cleaning something or carrying my bags. It’s these stark contrasts that make me feel like I’m going insane. I get all excited and happy typing “mezzuzahs every where!” and in the next moment I’m foaming at the mouth with the realization that an Ethiopian Jewish man carried my bags up three flights of stairs at a hotel in Tel Aviv because the elevator was busted.

[...] changed.  I love Israel and I hate Israel.  I think it’s beautiful and I think it’s ugly.  I’ve said this before. On today, Israel’s Independence Day, I’m struggling with what this day means to me as a new, [...]

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