The independent news organization of Duke University

Of hope and the 'homeland'

Israel was hard for me. 

I don’t mean in the culture-shock, language-barrier way, though that was a challenge too. Israel wasn’t hard because it came with new food or new people or dry heat—in fact, these were comfortable changes. Nor because of the long bus rides, or the early wake up calls or the long hikes. Israel was hard because it forced me to look it in the eye.

I grew up Jewish in the south, where middle school jokes about penny-diving and ovens were never so out of the norm. There is a quiet introspection that distinguishes my childhood Judaism from the Judaism of my peers from the north: for me, my faith was the opposite of ubiquitous, something for quiet contemplation and not outward display. Of course, the one exception was my bat mitzvah—the only one my peers would attend and still considered the party of the century by all of Culbreth Middle School.

But for the most part, Judaism was something that informed my values, something that led to an intense dedication to social justice and human rights. I stopped believing in God when I was ten, but cultural context continued to influence my worldview, pushing me to understand that I had some higher call. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” I learned, and I took these words as my purest purpose. I was meant to change the word for the better, work on behalf of and in conjunction with the world’s most oppressed voices. I felt a call to fight inequality wherever it reared its ugly head.

I read every Holocaust book and heard every story from my grandparents’ generation. I wanted to feel a sense of community among other Jews and understand the pain and pride of a shared history. I suppose I wanted reasons to feel more Jewish in a place where Judaism was uncommon and strange. But in the end, I never developed a close attachment to Israel. It was just a faraway place with faraway people, and my people were North Carolinians, battling every day against a restrictive state government. My values were put to use in service of racial equality, voting rights and public education. Progressivism became my religion, fed by the morals I reaped from a Jewish upbringing.

And so spending time in Israel was hard. Israel was hard because all of the connection I wanted to feel but couldn’t and all of the blind love my birthright peers could display but I hadn’t found. It was hard to feel intense adoration of the soldiers on our bus and their smart, familiar humors and then intense discomfort with their armed compatriots patrolling the streets. It was hard to reconcile the emotion I felt for my family and ancestors in Yad VaShem with the anger I felt to hear that Israeli cab companies allow you to request either an Arab or Jewish driver. 

I felt love when I stood atop Masada and bartered in Tzfat but shame when I looked down from the hill and saw the fenced-in borders of Gaza and nearly two million people with no hope of leaving. At home, I was an ardent defender of the separation of church and state, a crusader for equitable public schooling. In Israel, I met students in “secular” public schools who still got districted differently depending on their ethnicities. At home, I was an avid political organizer, working in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Durham and Charlotte who were marginalized based on a system of institutional racial inequality. In Israel, I heard people make racially charged comments about Arabs and looked at segregated cities.

It has taken me months to write about Israel, and it’ll perhaps take years for me to feel confident doing so. I have been afraid of the disapproval of my friends in both my faiths: progressivism and Judaism. I have been afraid of my own ambivalence and inability to find an answer—or even a clear opinion.

However, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital necessitated response. Bad policy may instigate violent response and further conflict. What’s more, dictating possession of a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims casts murky uncertainty over respect for religious freedom and sanctity. I don’t have a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but I condemn an administration that would blindly accept discrimination and possibly provoke violence.

I texted my Israeli friends, Noa and Adi, to find out how they felt. The two are female members of the Israeli Defense Force, and intelligent women. They told me that people were mostly happy, some were worried and that they felt safe. In this sense, Israel is still hard, despite the fact that I’m no longer there. It is hard to have amazing, loving friends all the way across the world who would lay down their lives for a country with which I often disagree.

But I’ve learned that my love for them cannot outweigh my commitment to justice. Nothing could make me turn a blind eye to oppression or inequality, and nothing could stop me from acting on the core tenets I derived long ago from my Jewish morality. Jewish exceptionalism will never be an acceptable political strategy, and its continuation will never draw us closer to peace between Israel and Palestine. 

Israel forced me to confront the direct conflicts within my personal identity and made me think I had to pick a clear and concrete side. The Trump administration—like most people in the world—expresses clear and unequivocal answers to the question of Israel, obstinately blind to the complexities of the region. It’s hard to live in the gray zone of uncertainty, being pulled in different directions by the religions that I hold dear. But perhaps if more of us did, we might reach a place of deeper compassion.

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "cut the bull" runs on alternate Fridays.