This is guest post by Sarah Brammer-Shlay. Sarah just graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Jewish Studies and Political Science. She will be working with Jews United for Justice as a Community Organizer starting in September through the Avodah: Jewish Service Corps program.
My parents met in Israel studying abroad their junior year of college in 1973. I often state that I am in fact alive because of the State of Israel; therefore, commitment to the State is not optional for me. I loved Israel before ever stepping foot onto the land. It is difficult to explain that kind of love and dedication to individuals who did not grow up hearing the wonders of Israel in their Hebrew schools, homes and synagogues.
I am fortunate enough to be friends with people from all different backgrounds, which is beautiful but at times leads to lack of understanding of my devotion to Israel. Friends do not understand the connection that I have had, since I was old enough to say “Israel” out loud.
Devotion remains but criticism has emerged in my relationship with the State of Israel.
I remember defending Israel with all my heart throughout my life. If someone said something bad about Israel, I was the first to jump down his or her throat defending it.
I so vividly remember calling my sister on the phone on the way back to my dorm room my first year of college, near tears, saying, “I feel like a bad Jew.” I had begun to see negative things about Israel and it was simply too difficult to process. Israel had only been presented to me as perfection, and therefore seeing the flaws of the country felt unnatural.
I had started to see things about Israel that were not so utopian, that didn’t properly represent Tikkun Olam and did not embrace the Jewish values that I put first in my Judaism.
I hit a point where I could have run. I could have said Israel/Palestine is simply too complicated for me, I have other things to worry about. I did not run though and I feel so blessed for making that decision. I dove deeper into the issues of Israel/Palestine. I took classes, I read and most importantly I listened to people who said things that were very hard to hear about a place I loved with all my heart. Criticizing Israel has been one of the most challenging things that I have ever had to grapple with but deciding to grapple with it has made me a better person.
However, the space to grapple with this issue has not always been available to me in the Jewish community. I found myself nervous to speak in my established Jewish community about my criticism with the State of Israel. As I began to investigate and educate myself on Israel/Palestine I became more knowledgeable and articulate on the issue but I felt that this exploration was done in solitude.
I made the wise decision to study abroad in Jerusalem in the spring of 2011. Through this experience I saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand; I became able to articulate the situation there and became more confident in my feelings toward the situation. This experience was beautiful but at times extremely difficult. I found myself being forced by new friends to “pick a side.” I needed to either be “Pro-Palestinian” or “Pro-Israel.” I identified and still do however, with both.
As I learn more and more about the history of Jews, my Zionism only solidifies. However, as I learn more about the current situation in Israel my commitment to creating a sovereign Palestinian state next to a sovereign Jewish state also solidifies.
After five months of living in Israel, I became better equipped to discuss and defend my viewpoint with people on all sides of the conflict but struggled once returning to the United States to find a way to further involve myself in finding a solution to this conflict.
When an organization called J Street started getting a lot of media attention, I decided to look into it a bit more. I found that the majority of my viewpoints regarding the conflict were represented by J Street. J Street was providing a voice for the Jewish community that had not been readily available for them in the past.
I was granted the opportunity to attend J Street’s “Making History 2012” Conference. It was amazing for me to walk into a room with 2,500 people, including 600 students who felt the same way as me regarding Israel/Palestine. The existence of the State of Israel is necessary not only for the Jewish people but our Jewish values of justice and equality are not prevailing in all of Israel, particularly in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. At this conference, I was no longer alone in feeling this way. It also made me wonder, how many people in my Twin Cities Jewish Community feel similarly to me but had simply been too intimidated to come out saying so?
I had met a handful of American Jews while living in Israel that felt similarly to me but walking in to a room of 2,500 people demonstrated to me the necessity of a Jewish community that welcomes a variety of opinions and approaches. J Street is far from a perfect organization, but it is providing a venue for American Jews to voice their concerns for the future of Israel, apart from in the traditional Pro-Israel manner.
J Street could be just one of many spaces for Jews to discuss feelings and attitudes regarding Israel/Palestine. Creating a variety of spaces for Jews to discuss, this often-divisive issue is necessary for the continuance of a welcoming Jewish community.
As Jews, we are a people of questioners, of debaters and of people that accept and love a wide range of opinions. We must remember these positive attributes also in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We must continue to evolve into a community that makes all members comfortable and confident in constantly questioning our position in this world. We must remember that as Jews, we were chosen to be leaders and Israel is to be a “light unto the nations.”