Although I want to keep the two apart, Israel has played a formative role in my relationship to Judaism. Growing up without family there, I felt as a child only the weak affinity to Israel that came with participation in Sunday school programming. Judaism, however, was central to my identity. I took pride in our holidays, our foods, our history and even my limited Hebrew. Israel remained a distant point of curiosity, but not a necessary part of a fulfilling Jewish upbringing.
During high school, I finally had the opportunity to lift some of my curiosity. I participated in Write On For Israel, a yearlong educational program centered around a 10-day trip to Israel. Before the trip, we learned about Israeli history and culture, and also lessons about media bias: how and why the media unfairly portrays Israel as a villain, how anti-Israel interests manipulate facts and images to sway public opinion, and why campus pro-Israel advocacy would be an important part of our futures as college students. We were given sheets of talking points to address criticisms of Israel that we might encounter, and told that use of the word “occupation” is a good indicator that someone hates Israel and possibly Jews, too.
While there, we dipped our toes in the Mediterranean, interviewed people in the street for advocacy documentaries we were working on, watched the sun set on the Old City of Jerusalem on Shabbat, held in our hands a Qassam rocket that had landed near a house and amused our Israeli guide with our attempts to learn Hebrew slang. I extended my stay and pieced together another fascinating two weeks in Israel. I came home full of stories and memories, with a more concrete image of the country but little concrete sense of its place in my life.
As I began my freshman year of college, I knew that I wanted to further explore my Jewish identity. I attended a few Hillel events, but didn’t strongly connect to the freshman Jewish community that was forming. At the same time, cracks began to appear in my understanding of Israel. Following my Hebrew school instructions to question everything and seek out all perspectives, I attended an event hosting a Palestinian Stanford alumnus who had returned to the West Bank after graduating to advocate for the Palestinian cause. He showed videos of a nonviolent protest where he had been arrested and dragged off a bus that was destined for a settlement. As I watched these videos, I scrutinized them as I had been trained to do in our media lessons, looking for inconsistencies to prove that they were fake. The Israeli soldiers looked unjustifiably aggressive, which couldn’t be right. Then I was struck with a moment of self-awareness. Why was I so desperate to prove to myself that the videos were fake? What assumptions about Israel, and about my community, would come crashing down if they weren’t? Was I too scared to face those questions?
In the months following this event, I found a few other students who were asking similar questions and working on establishing a J Street U chapter at Stanford. That tiny group became my community as I learned, and unlearned, a great deal about Israel. We researched and taught each other more complex, nuanced histories than any of us had heard before. We attended events together that we were nervous to go to alone. Many of us aired frustrations over the ways the Jewish community acted like it didn’t trust our generation with complete information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but expected us to advocate for Israel without question. In that group, I let the word “occupation” roll awkwardly off my tongue for the first time. At the end of that school year, the events leading up to Operation Protective Edge unfolded. I spent day after day in my summer job in 2014 listening to BBC newscasts while I worked, and my faith in Israel and my faith in my own community shrank to the point of total crisis.
My tiny community in J Street U offered me a way forward. I saw so many broken pieces of my Jewish upbringing — the tzedakah we raised for the JNF as children was used to plant trees on contested Palestinian land! — but I also found a group of people who were channeling their Judaism, their values of questioning and seeking justice, to act. Judaism and the Jewish community could be a stronger force for justice if we make it so. Despite my misgivings that I had missed my chance to be part of the student regulars at Hillel, I cautiously attended Shabbat dinner with a friend. This soon became a habit, and as I grew more comfortable in the Stanford Jewish community I was able to appreciate it, learn from it and challenge it as an invested member.
The next four years were turbulent ones for my relationships to Israel and to Judaism, but the two are now linked. Through a divestment campaign, anti-Semitic incidents and political challenges large and small, I grappled with Israel and with my Judaism time and again. Israel turned me into a political person, and taught me what it means to speak my mind, especially in the hardest circumstances: when I disagree with the people and institutions I care the most about. Israel pushed me to establish a Jewish practice that is meaningful to me and guides me through life. And Israel pushed me to confront my own ignorance, biases and fears, in order to approach all situations with curiosity and compassion.