Updated: Mar 9, 2021
As an anthropology major I’ve often encountered the idea that the role of the anthropologist is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” While my goal at the commencement of this trip was not to act as an anthropologist, I’ve found that one phrase encapsulates fairly well my experiences in Israel and the West Bank. Despite only visiting Israel once, it had always fell into the sphere of “familiar.” My friends and extended family travel there fairly regularly and it has functioned, in a sense, as their backyard.
Their accounts never touched upon both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were stories of inconvenience, nervousness, and even fear, all caused by a seemingly faceless, displaced entity. When I traveled there at the age of twelve the land morphed into a combination of holy land and playground. My experiences consisted of visits to friends who had moved there and Jewish holy sites.
What I have experienced now, however, is essentially a change of lens, like I just put on 3D glasses that have made me question what Israel even is and what it should be. A common thread of contention that ran through our experiences and discussions was that of the role of religion in Israel, a fact I had always taken for granted. As of now, Jewish law is a (but not the) preeminent force guiding family law, business law, and immigration rights in Israel, clashing head on with the American paradigm of separation of church from state that I was raised with. I also, however, identify as a religious, observant Jew, and therein lies the problem.
The idea of having a state to which I can move to at any time, one whose very basis revolves around an essential component of my identity, is almost irresistible. People, by nature, like to feel relevant and like to feel as if they are part of the majority. Despite how welcome I am, fortunate enough to be in America, living here as a religious minority is, inherently, living life on the periphery. The very idea of Israel as a religious state allows me to feel like I am no longer on the periphery and that I am part of some central force.
However, my moral conscious (itself primarily shaped in spite of and not despite of my religious identity) compels me to believe that the establishment of a modern state in which the inclusion of one identity implies and practices the exclusion of others, is fundamentally immoral, not to mention impractical and unstable. In this view, not only is an Israel governed by religious law problematic, but an Israel shaped by notions of Jewish ethnic and cultural identity becomes problematic as well. The question then is, what does this leave us? All states, in order to be viable, need some central force binding together its people and government. What should this force be in Israel? I don’t have an answer, although I think probably the best answer is some sort of national identity based on the elements of Jewish identity that pose the least threat of engendering exclusionary practices.
Aside from religion and state, the second (and most glaring) problem is that of the Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza as well as those living as citizens within Israel. Living in America, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians always seemed to be the product of abstract forces launching missiles from afar. On a pure factual level, this still remains mostly true. Currently, a large part of the physical and psychological damage caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is thanks to acts committed by (officially and unofficially recognized) governmental entities. Being in Israel, however, has taught me that some of the most damaging (and irreversible?) elements of the conflict are, yes, caused by governmental entities, but also, more specifically, the individual faces of
these entities, i.e. soldiers, airport security, and
As a group we had many interactions with these individuals and what was fascinating was that although they were acting on their orders (or what they perceived, and sometimes wrongly perceived, as their orders), their interactions with us felt not only invasive, but disrespectful. We’re a diverse a group, a fact immediately perceived and acted upon. People’s identities transformed from units of self-formation to broad categories and stark contrasts thrust upon us. More concretely, through the course of our day to day actions, those representing the State of Israel were (with the exception of those at the Foreign Ministry) impolite and invasive, and only served to make us feel uncomfortable and, I think I would go so far as to say, violated.
The omnipresent security did not, as intended, make me as a Jew feel more secure in the State of Israel. Practically speaking, it made me nervous that the aggressive atmosphere on the Israeli side would provoke aggression on the Palestinian side, the side who bears the brunt of the burden of security measures. From a more emotional perspective, I feel distraught that the religion of my identity, channeled through Israel as a state, has become an associative and justifying force of such practices.
While I do still feel a connection to the state of Israel, it is no longer a positive one based on spiritual connections to the religious history of the land. Rather, it is based on an internal sense of obligation to right the wrongs being committed. I have always disliked the fact that, as a Jew, I am immediately assumed to possess a connection to Israel greater than that of the average American. But, the fact of the matter is, that it’s true. Whether I like it or not Israel has become synonymous with Judaism, and as a Jew I feel the need to help atone for what Israel has done wrong, (which is definitely not to say that the Palestinian side and other Arab states have not done wrong or behaved harmfully within the peace process; they have, and perhaps this is a point best not addressed in parentheses) and also to highlight the fact that Judaism within Israel has also driven people and the government to do many acts of good.
Now that I have logically established that obligation for myself, the question becomes, what do I do now? Ironically, now more than ever I wish I could ignore the conflicts within Israel and pretend I have no more stakes than the average American. Meeting people who have spent their lives attempting and failing to achieve peace has engendered a sentiment of apathy. And yet, it is not only apathy I feel because, again, that sense of obligation prevails.
Charlotte Isaac is a member of the 2015 Ibrahim cohort.