Recently, I took a trip to Berkeley. Known as a hotbed of far-left activism and anti-Israel hatred, I wanted to see what was up.
While a friend of a friend had suggested there was no such thing as campus anti-Semitism there, I wanted to see what it was like first hand.
Going in with rather low expectations, I found a lot to like there. Berkeley is a cute town. I found my way to a delicious little restaurant that sold onigiri, or Japanese rice balls. As a kid who lived in Japan (and then stayed connected to the culture back in the States), I grew up with this as comfort food.
In the restaurant, I chatted with a nice young man behind the counter. I made a point of mentioning I was from Tel Aviv- a risky proposition in a city where not a small number of people boycott our existence.
Turns out, he was a Jew! His father had volunteered on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv years ago. And he told me he might go on Birthright! I told him to check out my blog and contact me if he visits- if you’re reading this please message me! I will hook you up 😉 It was a refreshing reminder of vibrant Jewish life here- a life that both as an American and an Israeli I support. That I urge the Israeli government to back with full force- not just rhetoric. Bibi- recognize progressive Judaism in Israel and abroad- as a living community which strengthens our state and our people. If we’re Jewish enough to be shot by anti-Semites, we’re Jewish enough for the Jewish State.
As I headed to campus, I decided to visit Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. I met some wonderful young students, who told me about the active Jewish life on campus. About their trips to Israel- and their desire to return. And unfortunately, some of the rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students they have to deal with. As they noshed on some pretty tasty looking shakshuka.
Frankly, I felt lucky to have graduated from college 10 years ago, where anti-Semitism was unheard of at my Hillel and where the scary rhetoric of today’s campus extremists was barely in its infant stages.
One particular story stood out to me. Speaking with an Israeli, she told me about a non-Jewish student who came to a discussion about the various types of Zionism. And, apparently innocently and sincerely, asked “but what does Zionism have to go with genocide?”
The Israeli thought she meant the Holocaust. But apparently the student, having heard all sorts of inflated rhetoric on campus, thought Zionism was a form of genocide. A blatant lie and a sad reflection on the rhetoric of the anti-Israel movement. That does a disservice to Jewish and Israeli history, the complexity of the conflict, and to Palestinians themselves as these “activists” push our peoples further and further apart.
I stand in admiration of Israel educators and Jewish students who patiently answer such questions. I have to say if someone asked me this question in earnest, I’d assume they were simply attacking me. Because in some cases, they are. But when you see someone so earnestly manipulated, it breaks the heart. And I’m so proud of our Jewish activists and non-Jewish allies who are standing up for truth, for nuance, and for engagement in today’s increasingly toxic environment.
One student named Judith particularly stood out to me (hi Judith, if you’re reading!). She is a Berkeley native so she is used to the screaming, often irrationally hateful activists who populate her campus. Like the Christian minister I saw on a street corner shouting in a megaphone that “Jesus wasn’t afraid of the Jewish culture.” As people walked by completely indifferent.
Her bravery and her ability to ignore such people remind me of Israelis. She is used to it, and she lives her life despite it. It reminds me of young Jews I met in Belgium who were used to having their synagogues under armed guard. Where you submit your passports a week in advance to visit. To get a background check. A reality unthinkable in European cathedrals, open to the public without even a cursory glance. It’s a reality American Jews will have to get used to. After Pittsburgh, you can expect enhanced security at American synagogues. Where, sadly, I think they will one day resemble the fortress-like congregations that dot the European continent my family once called home.
The age of American Jewish innocence- where we lived in security and prosperity- is evolving. What was once the safest and most prosperous Diaspora community since medieval Spain is in the midst of a monumental change and I fear for its future. I will not be surprised to see armed guards outside American synagogues next visit- and it will make me a bit sad. One Jewish community advocate estimates it could cost $1 billion to secure American synagogues.
We once thought we were exceptional, that our bagels were as American as apple pie. But as is often the case in Jewish history, if we ever forget who we are, the anti-Semites arise to remind us. If you are a non-Jewish ally reading this, the hour is late and if you don’t mobilize with us now, American Jewry is at tremendous risk. Speak up, show your solidarity, stand with us- lest we become the next France. Where Jews fear to walk around with yarmulkes on and Jewish centers are regularly attacked. Where Holocaust survivors are burned to death in their homes. If you think this is alarmist, you don’t know much about Jewish history. The ethnocentric view places this recent attack only in the context of American hate crimes like heinous attacks on black churches or immigrants. But if you read Jewish history, you’ll realize this analogy is relevant but incomplete. Violent anti-Semitism isn’t new- and it didn’t start with Donald Trump. Although I’d invite him to stop complaining how attacks against us “slow” his political momentum. We’ve been dealing with this for 2,000 years and counting and across dozens of countries. I’m not a huge fan of the (seemingly endless) privilege discourse, but as a non-Jew, it’d benefit you to consider the ways you’re fortunate to not be one of us. And to find ways to help.
As I wandered around Berkeley’s campus, I felt more comfortable than I expected. There is something about coming in with low expectations that gives you the freedom to be pleasantly surprised. To have your preconceptions splendidly upended. Like when I met pro-Israel libertarians with buttons that said “BDS=BS”! So thankful to have you advocating for us in the belly of the beast 🙂 .
Yet some expectations are based in reality. I met a man tabling for a Muslim Student Association volunteer program- run in conjunction with an anti-Semitic professor. Berkeley is about to host a Marxism conference. With speakers on Palestinian liberation- likely predicated on the destruction of Israel. A terrible false dichotomy that speaks more to their black-and-white destructive thinking than any sort of genuine attempt at dialogue or peacemaking. Signs abounded about the “Trump-Pence Regime” and “resistance.” As if our President, as narcissistic and callous as he may be, was somehow installed by a putsch. As opposed to the democratic elections he won. Someone you oppose becomes an illegitimate enemy of humanity rather than a candidate or ideology you want to defeat. The former requires nothing but anger. The latter requires organizing, analysis, and persuasion- real work that requires you to engage with people you disagree with. You can tell what I think is more productive.
This kind of black-and-white thinking is something I’ve dabbled in, especially in college. There’s something about this time in your life, free from obligations, where you can experiment with radical ideas. And on some level it’s healthy. Some ideas accepted as normal in our society need to be challenged and changed. I also feel that my abusive upbringing pushed me into defensive and judgmental thinking as a way to protect myself and to make sense of inexplicable hatred.
And I’m proud to have worked hard to grow out of this mentality, as befits my age and my process of healing from abuse. And my engagement with a wide range of cultures and political views. So that when I meet an American-born Cambodian student whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge, but who is excited about the Marxism conference, I feel a mixture of emotions. Anger, sadness, and pity. It takes a lot of mental acrobatics to justify the way she thinks, but all I can say is that I hope she can one day escape the ideological labyrinth in which she wanders.
Because for me, resistance is not about slogans or yelling at people who disagree with you. It’s about standing for your values while resisting the urge to do evil when it has been done to you.
As I prepared to leave Berkeley, I told Judith that I thought she was brave for having adjusted to life in her town. As a proud Jew and a lover of Israel, to be surrounded by such political extremism can’t be easy. And like Jews have done for centuries, she got used to it and lives her life.
And I left her with a warning: “Jews in Europe are now used to armed guards and soldiers protecting their synagogues. Like fortresses. They’ve gotten used to it to- it’s necessary and it’s sad. So be careful- don’t get too used to it. Because you deserve better.”
She nodded in agreement as she boarded the bus to a fun date with her boyfriend. The kind of care-free evening that makes America so fun. And makes Americans so lucky. With all your problems, remember this is the wealthiest and one of the most stable countries on the planet. And don’t forget it. It’s a blessing. Hamas fired 30 rockets on Southern Israel last week and Catalan political leaders sit in Spanish prison. Even as you push for change, count your lucky stars and remember there are problems outside this country too.
At night, I headed into San Francisco. Having seen the good, bad, and neutral of Berkeley (including some amazing burritos made by Asian students), I wanted Shabbat.
Shabbat is not something to take for granted. It’s only a feeling that happens if you make it happen, especially outside of Israel. On my travels, I found myself gravitating towards Jews when I wanted that feeling of community. It wasn’t really about religion in the traditional sense of the word. It was about being a Jew with people who understood me. And sharing in our customs, food, and talk.
One organization that has brought this to life for me is Moishe House. They organize communal houses for Jews across the world, which then hold programs for both Jews and non-Jews. A pluralistic cultural space, it is a great complement or alternative to synagogue, as it doesn’t require a particular belief and all are welcome.
I’ve written before about how I visited Moishe Houses in Brussels and Barcelona. And now it was San Francisco’s turn.
The folks at Moishe House Nob Hill put on an amazing Shabbat dinner. There’s a special feeling when you’re with Jews. To put it in the words of a man named Ben I met- it’s intangible. You just feel at home. You know something links you even if you’ve never met.
When I walked in the house, I was greeted with the smell of chicken shnitzel, of hummus, and I even made my own challah. For the first time!
Turns out one of the housemates’ friends even read my blog about San Francisco! It’s an amazing feeling of connection when you see just how small of a people we really are. And I’m grateful to both Moishe House and its energetic residents for building this safe, vibrant space.
A space where for just one night, I can worry a little less about saying I’m Israeli. Where I talk about Judaism without worrying about sounding “too Jewish”. Where I can count on empathy after this week’s Pittsburgh terror attack. An empathy I sometimes found lacking among non-Jewish folks I met in San Francisco.
It was interesting- I had actually forgotten about the attacks until the dinner. The dinner was advertised as a Pittsburgh solidarity dinner, a great idea. It’s just that as an Israeli, I had mourned, been angry, and moved on to the next thing. A zen-like way of living in the moment that I learned to do more and more in the Jewish State, where hundreds of Pittsburghs have happened.
So where I expected just a Shabbat dinner, I got a lore more. It was nice to see the tender side of American Jews. Israelis, so accustomed to terror attacks, move on rather quickly out of necessity. It was both heartbreaking and moving to see how the attacks affected the young Jews here. The softness of American Jews is a real treasure- unique in Jewish history for having enjoyed so much freedom and safety. And it’s something I fear will have to change. As the country and the world increasingly scapegoats us, American Jewry would be wise to connect more with European Jews and Israel to learn coping skills. It’s not easy- but the good (and bad) thing is we have a lot of experience dealing with terror. And we can be there to support each other during this transition. What I fear may be a new normal.
A curious thing happened at dinner. A young man requested we do kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine or grape juice.
The Moishe House residents looked around, looking for volunteers. Having led Reform services my whole life (including in Tel Aviv), I know the blessing by heart.
When I left Tel Aviv two months ago, I could barely utter it. So disenchanted with both Judaism and Israel itself in such a tense region of the world, I wasn’t even sure if I was a Jew. Although, as you’ll see with my previous blogs, Europe reminded me I was.
So I found myself with a choice. Having gone from religious to atheist, to agnostic, to spiritual. Where did I stand now?
I wasn’t sure. But I sang.
And I sang with love.
And people joined in.
I hadn’t sung a kiddush in two months. And it felt great.
As I write this blog, I think I do believe in God. Maybe not the way others do, but who cares? It’s my belief, and while I can’t find myself obsessing over details of Jewish law or ignoring the problems of literalism or religious tribalism, I believe. I don’t know- I believe. That’s why we use that word. Because someone with perfect faith is a liar- and a demagogue. Leaving room for doubt is the most Jewish thing in the world- and allows us to till the fertile gray space our minds can thrive in.
What inspired my faith this Friday? A lot of things. The human spirit, the need for connection, nature, change, my accomplishments, gratitude, and just a feeling. A spiritual connection that complements, even creatively contradicts, my rational thought. To make me who I am.
And what also inspired it are the great people I’ve met along the way. Judith, Moishe House, Hillel, Israel educators, the young Jew making Japanese food. Korean burritos, amazing taco chips, and the people who accept me as the Israeli I am.
This morning, I met a 70-something year old hippie at my hostel. When she asked where I was from, I was nervous at first. I’ve had some bad experiences with anti-Semites when I said I was Israeli.
But much to my surprise, like the young man making Japanese food, Lynn was Jewish. A Reform Jew, like me 🙂 . I don’t go to services as much now, but the synagogue I don’t go to is definitely Reform 😉 . Lynn had been to Israel in 2006 and loved it.
We had a great conversation as I made delicious pancakes drenched in the kind of authentic maple syrup you only really find here. It’s America’s hummus- something I just won’t eat in my other homeland. It doesn’t taste right.
I gave Lynn my email and told her to come visit. And I mean it- I hope she comes and I will set her up with whatever she needs.
Because I won’t give up on Jews anywhere. And no matter who my Prime Minister is, no matter who attacks our people, no matter what- I believe in us. And I want to be the progressive, open-minded Israeli who gives you pride in the Jewish State. Who works tirelessly on the other side of the world to make space for people like us. For a Jewish vision that supports LGBT rights, Arab empowerment, consideration for minorities, inclusion for refugees, and equality for progressive Judaism. For a strong homeland that welcomes all of us. Because there are Israelis like me who are your allies. Forget the headlines and stand with us. Because together we can strengthen the Israel and Diaspora community that makes us feel at home. That lives out values we identify with. And yes, that empathizes with people who disagree with us.
And in the meantime, I ask you to stand with us. When you’re in Berkeley and people spout irrational, inaccurate hatred against Israel, to fight back. To educate. To realize that your fate depends as much on me as mine does on yours. That Israel is your insurance policy- just as it has been for Moroccan and Polish and Ethiopian Jews forced from their homes for decades upon decades.
I need a strong America for a safe Israel. And you need a strong Israel when you don’t have a safe America.
The world is changing, and who knows what will happen. Enjoy this moment- who knows what tomorrow holds. That’s the Jewish way. And whether you’re Jewish or not, it can enrich your life to realize this basic fact.
Whatever you want to do, don’t wait. There are no guarantees. Dance in the streets, speak your mind, smile, cry, hug. Like Lynn hugged me before she left- a precious gift for someone traveling alone. Both on this trip, and in life.
What I’ve discovered is that what makes me feel less alone is finding empathetic people along the way who take you in. Who make you feel loved and warmed. Who feel your humanity. Who share with you.
At a time when empathy is faltering, challenge yourself to show it. And to find it where it appears to have disappeared.
Because next time I visit America, I want it strong. This week, try to find a moment to talk to someone different, as hard as it might be. Because Twitter and Facebook are great, but they won’t smile at a woman on the train. And a news feed can’t feed a heart’s desire for acceptance.
America is a great country. I hope its residents embrace the beautiful privilege of living there. Despite it all, still one of the calmest and most prosperous places on the planet.
We are. Black white, Jewish Muslim, gay bisexual, Republican Democrat, conservative centrist, straight and working class. Christian, Native American. Vegan and wealthy.
The next time your hand reaches for the screen. Ready to type a comment on Facebook. To agitate, to vent, to express. Flip it like a pancake, fingers pointing ahead, thumb towards the sky.
Reach out and meet your neighbor. Try. It won’t always go well, but it’s worth it and it’s what we need.
This hand was made for you and me.