Tonight, I went to an English-Hebrew practice group. Not because I particularly need to practice my Hebrew, since I’m surrounded by it all day and I speak it at every opportunity. But because I wanted to make friends.
There was an interesting cast of characters, including a guy who claimed for 20 minutes he was a porn producer, only to say later he was not. I spoke some Hebrew, others spoke English, all was fine.
Then I met an exceedingly handsome French guy whose Hebrew accent was to die for. Even after he revealed he had a girlfriend, I couldn’t stop looking at his beautiful skin and face and smile. Oulala!
Let’s call him Pierre. Pierre has a very cushy job at a pharmaceutical company who has asked him to work in Israel for four months before moving him to London. Not a bad life. Pierre is actually not Jewish! This surprised me, because actually there are a ton of French Jews here, many of whom are escaping rabid anti-Semitism in France. He asked some thoughtful questions about Israeli politics, religious identity, and had an impressive command of Hebrew for someone who’s been here for a few weeks.
I decided he might make a good friend, so we walked for a while together after the event. Sadly, it didn’t take long for the garbage to come out. Perhaps feeling liberated from being away from a larger group, he started to tell me all. about. the. settlements. Please don’t get me wrong- talking about the Jewish presence in the West Bank is a very legitimate political issue and one that is far more complex than the Western media makes it out to be. I can understand why there are people critical of the settlements (their word) and- just as critically- I can understand why Jews choose to make their home in Judea and Samaria (their words). There are genuine concerns about human rights violations and there are very real religious and historical reasons why Jews want to live in these places. I’ll save the political debate for a future blog- the point is I try to have empathy towards different types of people.
Pierre was not so interested in empathy, but more in lecturing me. The truth is I found it shocking, but not too shocking. I’ve had many non-Jews, especially those visiting Israel, jump into long-winded speeches about their political beliefs. Before really even knowing much about me or frankly, Israel. Unfortunately, so many people around the world view this place solely through the prism of news articles and not through their own personal experiences and relationships here- both with Israelis (Jewish and Arab) and Palestinians.
I often feel like the world expects Israelis and Palestinians to entertain them, like a circus. One person dies here (doesn’t matter the religion or nationality), and the BBC cameras race to the scene. It’s front page news.
Yet when a black kid is shot on the streets of D.C. or when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered or when Tibetans are colonized by the Chinese government, the world barely blinks. The conflicts go on, untended and unresolved.
It’s not that I’m arguing we shouldn’t pay attention to what happens here- we should. It’s just that the amount of attention that the world puts on this tiny little place is absolutely out of proportion and exacerbates the problem rather than solving it.
In the end, non-Jews who visit here from Western countries should treat this place with respect- including the Jews who live here. If you want to understand why Jews return to their homeland, you need to learn something about Jewish history. Plenty of American Christians know what Chanukah is (vaguely), but most couldn’t tell you about the pogroms that brought my ancestors to the U.S. Or Martin Luther’s antisemitism. Or the laws that prohibited Jews from owning land in Europe. Or forced conversions of Jews to Islam in Iran. Or the myriad blood libels, burnings, discriminatory clothing, or expulsions you can read about here. And before my American friends chime in with “oh well this is foreign to the U.S.”, you can read this.
My point is this- before you rush to judge another culture (because yes, Jews are both a culture/people and a religion), learn something about it and show some humility. When I met Pierre, I didn’t rush to ask him to condemn France’s myriad expulsions and massacres of Jews over the course of 2,000 years. Nor did I ask him to condemn the extensive French collaboration with Adolf Hitler (as an aside, I had a highly educated French teacher who thought the first time French people did something antisemitic was the Holocaust).
Why? Because I don’t even know him! If I met a Chinese person, would I launch into a tirade about Tibet? Is that socially acceptable? Is that kind?
No. Because everyone is a human being first and foremost. If you really want to get to know Israel, you have to get to know Israelis. Just like anywhere else on the planet. You have to accept that things aren’t always black and white and that there are reasons why things are the way they are- even if you don’t always agree. Empathy isn’t about morally approving of everything another person or another culture does- it’s simply understanding where it comes from and acknowledging that all behavior is caused.
There’s a reason why if I hear a Jewish Israeli criticizing settlements it bothers me less than if a French Christian does it. There are historical reasons for that. Jews have had to band together over the course of two millennia to survive oppression without a state. Now that we have a state, we still find our situation fragile as we’ve endured war after war for our existence. This is a place with eons of trauma that we’re trying to heal from- even as we try to make peace with our neighbors, who have their own issues they’re sorting out.
Let’s say you have a zany uncle. You laugh about your uncle with your mom, with your cousin, even with your aunt. But the second some random person at a gas station laughs at him, your back straightens and you’re ready to defend him. Because you’re family.
For Jews and especially for Israelis, we are a family. If I’m gay and I use the word queer, it feels safe. If a straight person uses it, I start to worry that it might be an insult. I think the same concept applies.
You don’t have to dance around things all the time- let’s talk. But you do have to be sensitive to my people’s historical experience if you want to talk with me. Try to understand where we’re coming from. The fact that you have a Jewish friend and like challah does not mean you understand my history and my identity. I’d in particular recommend the book “A Short History of The Jewish People” as a great place to start learning.
A while after my conversation with Pierre, I looked at his Facebook profile. Hoping to find some sign of nuance or interest in Judaism that would abate my anger, I instead found a homophobic quote, a picture of Hitler, and an article posted that mocked Jews who were concerned about antisemitism. I blocked him.
All goes to show that yes, you can ask good questions about Israeli identity, you can speak some Hebrew, you can be intellectually curious about Judaism, and even visit Israel. And be an anti-Semite.