Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Moving From The Margins To The Majority, And Trying To Stay Inclusive

From Loving the Real Israel by Alex Sinclair

I spent a lot of my childhood being an outsider.  Whether it was for my religion, my vegetarian diet, or my love of musical theatre, my identity existed outside of the norm in Youngstown, Ohio.  As I mentioned before in previous posts, my Jewish values are deeply tied to the idea that because of my people's history of oppression, it is our duty to use the advantages we have achieved to provide support to those still struggling to achieve equality. Whether it was explicitly told to me or not, I also came to be suspicious of any kind of majority and felt it was my duty to provide nuance and a voice for the voiceless.

And this is why perhaps I have always struggled in Jewish majorities--whether in Israel or New York City.   When traveling through the neighborhood that used to be the Warsaw ghetto, some girls expressed distain that anyone could live there after the Holocaust, and I felt obliged to point out that we Americans build shopping malls on former Indian land and name subdivisions after tribes.  At least we Jews have memorials commemorating our suffering--most groups simply get their histories erased.  I thought of this as exactly why my parents were adamant about sending me to public school as opposed to day school:  they wanted me to be able to relate to and empathize with a larger society than one ethnic/religious group.  If I became too comfortable only surrounded by people who are like me, would I lose the ability to empathize with others, and then become part of the problem?

And so my experience in Israel on Kesher Hadash has been an interesting one.  While I spent the last ten years feeling really isolated from the Jewish community because of my religious questioning and my issues with Zionism, for once I find myself in an environment where most of my colleagues share my views.
 It's been extremely empowering to learn that there is a whole post-Zionist discourse out there among staggeringly smart Jewish intellectuals who are actively wrestling with tensions within Israeli society.  And while there are many figures in the Jewish community both in and outside of Israel who fear that publicizing these issues will undermine the security of the state, for me engaging in these critical conversations makes me feel like I actually have a stake in the future here.  That my ambivalence about Zionism and Jewish peoplehood does not necessarily stand in the way of me being a "good Jew."  

But not everyone in my group has felt the same ease in this environment.  While for me it's a relief to be in a community where people see racial tensions between Israelis and Palestinians the context of Ferguson and Nazi Europe, others feel deeply triggered by these comparisons.  And when these individuals sometimes try to raise their concerns, they feel other members of the group dismiss their views and look at them condescendingly.  

Which puts me in a very odd position.  While I may agree with the majority view, I don't want to be guilty of isolating other people they way I have felt isolated so much of my Jewish life.  Because I am a notoriously sensitive person, I tend to soak up feelings of fear and tension like a sponge and instinctively want to do all I can to put people at ease.  And yet at the same time, trying to put someone else at ease while I haven't yet finished wrestling with my own religious and political demons is extremely draining.  How much is the emotional welfare of others my responsibility?  Am I allowed to let myself enjoy being in an ideological comfort zone for a while?  

I have a such a great deal of respect for the people we've met who are extremely skilled at moderating dialogue in such a way that makes everyone feel safe enough to speak their minds, while also resiliently listening to those who may challenge them.  This semester we are fortunate enough to work with Dr. Daniel Moses from Seeds of Peace as well as instructors in the Diversity and Differnence in Jewish and Democratic Israale program at David Yellin College.  At David Yellin, we are studying in a classroom that involves Americans, Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis. And while I have been told this course can cause tempers to flare, on the first day at least the instructors managed to facilitate an extremely calm and dynamic environment.  As far as I am concerned these people are superheroes, and I hope to come away from this experience with some tools to engage in healing dialogue within all of the communities I am privileged enough to inhabit.  

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