My first memory of anything related to Israel starts when I was a small child in South Africa, asking why Sukkot, a harvesting holiday, was being held in spring. Why? Because it’s fall in Israel and that’s where our religion is from, so we celebrate it in the appropriate season for them, rather than for us. Israel was a really nebulous concept for me still, but the idea that we placed that much value on it that we’d celebrate our holidays at “weird” times spoke to me. It was also useful in Canada, when we’d celebrate Passover, holiday of spring, while dodging blizzards. Now, in America, most of the holidays (with the exception of Tu B’Shevat) seem to make sense in their times of year.
Things somehow got more complicated as I got older when it came to Israel. My first Yom Ha’atzmaut on campus, I heard stories about the previous year’s “festivities”. Police patrols being the only thing keeping screaming students from both sides from getting violent seemed like something I wanted to avoid if at all possible. As it turned out, things were much better that year – although there was a protest (and really, what would Yom Ha’atzamaut be on campus without a protest?) it was on the other side of the quad from us, and there was also a “tolerance” event the night before, which I helped work on and through which I met a lot of people from other walks of life.
After that first year, I didn’t think too much about Israel as a cause. I was much more interested in helping to create religious life for people, rather than advocating for Israel, especially as we had a very strong Israel advocacy group on campus. While I thought a lot of the activities were great, the organizations (adults, usually) sponsoring them often seemed to promote the unthinking support of Israel, which was something I was and continue to be uncomfortable with.
Still, I don’t know that I was prepared for how Israel would feel when I visited on birthright. At the time, in 2004, I still felt a lot more like a “vistor” to the US. We had been in the country for less than ten years, and it was still strange to be visiting Israel as an “American.” It felt less foreign and more foreign for me at the same time – there are similarities to America and similarities to South Africa, and then something else that made it Israel. And I felt more safe in Israel than I had when we visited South Africa four years before. It was that visit that helped me decide to go to Israel for the year after college, and that visceral experience helped me understand the relationship Americans can have with Israel. I don’t have to support Israel unconditionally, but I do love it and I hope to be able to visit again and again.
Happy 62nd Birthday Israel! Many happy returns!