I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel as of late. Because of a scholarship and the generous donations and support of readers on my personal blog, I will be leaving for Israel on November 8th for a 10-day trip with LGBTQ groups, Keshet, Nehirim, and A Wider Bridge. The trip is something that I’ve been tirelessly working towards and after months of planning and fundraising it’s finally here. I’ve discovered that the way that I think of the state of Israel is still very much framed around my Christian past and upbringing.
The Holy Land is a complex thing. From a monotheistic point of view, which is generally how I think of the area, Israel is important not just to Jews but to Muslims and Christians alike. I’m not a Zionist, and I don’t think that one group of believers should hold “claim” to any piece of land - especially land so integral to the cornerstones of faith. The more I think, the less I actually come to a definite opinion about my views. It has been my experience that most Jewish people have definite opinions about the State of Israel. I’ve been around many Shabbos tables in which someone turns to me with a smile and asks, “Have you been to Israel?” I tell them that I have not and they list off reasons why I should go. On the flip side, I’ve been to Shabbos tables where the topic of Israel and Palestine results in a heated discussion where the Jews think that Palestinians have every right to claim the same piece of land. I want to go, I’m excited to be going - I’m just conflicted. As converts there seems to be a division, of sorts, between pre-Jewish thinking and Jewish thinking. Before making the decision to convert I had very strong and very opposed feelings about the State of Israel. Now…I’m not quite sure.
This spring I visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage . I’ve been to several Holocaust remembrance museums and nearly every Jewish Museum has a Holocaust memorial but for some reason, while at this museum something clicked. I’ve always had a pretty clear understanding of why there was need for a Jewish State after the War. Neighbors and countries literally turned their backs on Jewish people who were displaced. People were left without a home or a country and needed a place to live. Without getting into the Biblical promises made of a Promised Land found in more than one Holy Book, the idea of “discovering” or “owning” land already occupied is a hard pill to swallow.
It’s basic knowledge that Columbus did not discover America. The country that was named America had been occupied by people for generations. The land and the people thrived until it was “discovered” and “civilized.” I have the same feeling about the land of Israel. It existed with living breathing people before it was called Israel. So this need for a home, but acquisition of said home already home to another is definitely hard for me to comprehend and agree with. I imagine what it must have been like in 1492 when Native Americans first saw the ships approaching their shores. I can imagine what it was like for Palestinians to have waves of immigrants “coming home” to reclaim land.
This idea of claiming land, land acquisition, and the narrative of Columbus in relation to Israel/Palestine is one that my conversion rabbis and I struggled with for months. Being raised as a Christian I thought Israel was a people i.e., the Hebrews, the Israelites that I read about in the “Old Testament”. Judaism and the land of Israel was not a part of my upbringing. In fact, I don’t think that I’d actually learned about the Holocaust until world history in high school. As a Christian, Israel was not on my radar, it wasn’t part of family discussions, it did not make up my identity. Balancing thirty years of a Christian idea of Israel with new Jewish eyes, it’s safe to say that my feelings about the State of Israel, the U.N. bid for recognition of a Palestinian state, and where I fit into it all is a bit unsure.
On one hand I’m not sure that I would be accepted as a Jew in Israel. My African American ancestry, my Reform conversion, my beit din with two female rabbis, my lesbian sexual orientation, my non-Jewish parents, my opinions and feeling about Kashrut laws - none of those things would “jive” with the Orthodox authority in Israel. Then I think of groups of displaced Jews around the world. Jews who are racially and ethnically diverse. Jews from India, Mexico, China, the Jews of Nigeria and Ethiopia who have, for generations, been living Jewishly, observing Torah laws yet still aren’t considered “real” Jews by the State of Israel. Some of these groups of Jews are required by the State of Israel to undergo formal conversions when for generations (in some cases) they have thought of themselves as Jews. I wonder why Israel has this much power around who is and who is not really a Jew.
On the other hand, despite my questions, my doubts, and things I do not agree with, through the process of converting and now as a Jewish woman I feel an inexplicable pull towards Israel. Partially, I’m sure because of my Jewish identity, but also because of my Christian past. As a child when I discovered that I could find Bethlehem on a map I was surprised, shocked and delighted. The Bible is one of the oldest books read; surely the places in it were made up or washed away by time. Yet, they aren’t. The stories of The Bible are fascinating because when you discover that the lands we read about from thousands of years ago exist still today you can’t help but get excited at the idea of walking on the same streets that are in the Biblical narrative. Apart from the Bible, the land itself is filled with so much human history. The very seat of Monotheism is a place we can visit today. I will go to Jerusalem as a Jewish person, but I cannot negate the Muslim and Christian history seated there. In my Utopian idea of Judaism and religion as a whole the Holy Land, as it were, would be a bit like Switzerland or Costa Rica-neutral.
I am excited to go. I go with no expectations, just to experience what people have experienced for thousands of years. I want to go not because it’s my right as a Jew, but because all of the land in that region is embedded in my religious historical make up. I want to experience history. I want to see it with my own eyes. I want to smell it and taste it. I want to feel it under my feet and in my hands. Then, and only then, do I feel that I can formulate an opinion. As Americans were are used to living in a government in which state and religion do not mix. In Israel this is not the case, as an American Jewish woman getting used to religion in my politics and politics in my religion will be something I suppose I will get used to.