Dear diverse friends,
The occasional Gaza wars aside, I normally enjoy my role as your token Israeli-American friend. Israelis, I cherish our little talks about American culture and all its puzzling idiosyncrasies, like how people here will stand peaceably in line even when they could get away with not doing so. Americans, I love your look of awe when I tell you that yeah, I served in the army, I carried an Uzi and I did shoot it; or the confusion on your faces when we discuss how tightly regulated the state-controlled gun sales in Israel really are. And American Jews, well, you’re always a delight. You make me feel important just for having been raised in Israel.
Being your go-between is my job, my beat, and what my relationships with many of you were built around. But for the past couple of weeks, the going-between all of you has been making me feel … just tired. Can we talk about something else?
My troubles began with an MSNBC story about Israel’s ban, thanks to President Donald Trump, of Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Several friends, none of whom happened to be Jewish, started discussing it in a group text.
“I don’t get it,” asked S (whom I would like to keep as a friend, so I’m not sharing her name). “Is Israel banning them because of their opinions?”
“Is it banning them because they are Palestinians?” asked T.
“Isn’t that anti-democratic?”
“Isn’t that racist?”
“Israel is a JEWISH country. That’s racist by definition,” noted T.
“Says here it’s because the congresswomen support anti-Semitism,” S argued, sharing a Daily Mail link.
“Anything that is critical of Israel is called ‘anti-Semitism.’ It’s disgusting,” texted J. “It’s worse than a race card. There’s white privilege and then there’s Jewish privilege on top of that. There — I’ve said it.”
This was upsetting, particularly because I like J. As the token Israeli-American, it was my job to set them straight, but how do I explain Israel’s distinct circumstances, the nuanced dichotomy between its ethnic and democratic aspects, and the multifaceted, non-linear relationship between it and the diaspora Jews that support it, in the five minutes I have before I start to prepare dinner? I don’t.
The matter came up again in a phone call with my mother. She had read about Trump’s recent remarks — accusing Jewish Americans who vote Democratic of either ignorance or “great disloyalty” — and wanted me to return to Israel. Anti-Semitism was on the rise in the U.S., she reasoned; I may be safer back home. “Oh c’mon, Mom!” I exploded, and told her how disappointed I was in my ever-more-hawkish homeland, the threadbare democracy trapped in an autocracy that it has become, and its alarming mistreatment of progressives, forget Palestinians. Today, Omar and Tlaib; tomorrow, it could be me. Mom sighed, dramatically.
“I don’t like the nationalistic climate here any more than you do,” she remarked. “But you don’t sound like a progressive. You sound like a radical.”
“It’s your kids I’m worried about,” she added. “You can rant but you know where you come from, you know who your people are. Will they?”
I brushed Mom off, but her words continued to nag at me. Ethan, my eldest, will start kindergarten next week, in an ultra-progressive elementary school in Brooklyn, which has “promoting social justice, encouraging activism, and combating racism” in its mission statement. Now I know the distinction between “critical of Israel” and “anti-Israel,” because I live it, but how will I impart this understanding to him? I tried to discuss the matter with a fellow progressive Jewish-American mom slotted for the school, while the kids were on a play date. She shushed me.
“We don’t talk about stuff like wars, separation walls, or racism around her,” she whispered, eyeing her child. “We visit our relatives in Israel every year, and I think, you know, right now it’s too confusing for her.”
Ethan and his playmate, who until now were happily ignoring us, turned to stare at us intently.
“But when the time comes, what will you teach her about Israel?” I whispered back. “How will you foster a real connection to the place without blinding her to its growing fanaticism?”
The woman had on that manically anxious smile now, the one that is somehow so typical to progressive Jewish-American moms. “Can we talk about something else?” she hissed.
I was upset for a moment, but just a moment. Really, I can’t throw stones.
Orli Santo is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.