Being Jewish is more than knowing six Goldbergs, none of whom are related. It’s more than a permanent Mezuzah mark on the door, eating stale gelt from a few Hanukkahs back, or remembering once a year how disappointing matzah really is. It’s not just kvetching about how long the sermon is or laughing at Zadie mumbling the prayers 10 seconds behind on zoom. Being Jewish is all encompassing. It is how we think, talk, act and even breathe. Being Jewish is in the small and big moments. The broken glass at the wedding, the cookie trays at the shiva, or Hava Nagila being played at the baseball game with no context.
But to be young and Jewish, well, the lens loses focus. To be young and Jewish is to live an old story in a young life — a constant balancing act. It is trying to walk in the shoes of our ancestors, knowing there is no way we could ever be fit to wear them. It is holding our traditions in one hand and, in the other, holding on tightly to a chaotic technological world where faith seems to matter less and less. It is growing up with stories of our people, our battles and losses, our overcomings and tragedies. It is knowing you have a home for you across the world, but only ever hearing one side of the story.
It seems impossible for our community to hold only one narrative. What other People include four different arguments for every verse in their scripture? And yet, as a young Jew in Jewish Day School, I learned only one story about Israel. Israel is the Jewish people’s home. Israel is at constant risk of destruction. Every action Israel takes is to defend herself. Israel deserves to be celebrated and has always tried to make peace. Israel, in essence, is perfect.
When I’m in Israel, there is an unspoken sense of holiness that fills my soul. At the Western Wall I can feel prayers from hundreds of years radiating off every stone. I feel at home when eating shawarma and seeing restaurants serve matzah pizza on Passover. I love Israel deeply; as a Jew, it is part of who I am. She deserves to be celebrated and owns the right to defend herself. When I’m there, it really does feel perfect.
But when I left the comforting bubble of Jewish Day School, I was radically unprepared. The narrative I learned seemed to grow quiet. Everywhere I looked there was criticism of Israel, a reminder of the incessant prejudice against Jews present in every part of the world. I felt isolated and painfully confused. The more I learned, the less I trusted both my community and others. I heard stories of Palestinian people in pain at the hands of Israel, but that did not sound like the perfect country I knew.
Was it truly antisemitic to wish another group self-determination? Was it truly anti-Israel to grow angry with a home I thought I once knew? I felt like the rope in a tug-of-war slowly unraveling, pulled in each direction by anger and fear. I couldn’t understand why my home was no longer perfect or the idea that it may never have been. I love my people but came to realize, like every community, we hold our own biased and binary perspectives.
I was always told we came to Israel because we had nowhere else to go. That we are a people always on the run, always looking over our shoulder ready with a packed suitcase in the closet. Our fear is legitimate and runs deep within our veins. My parents and grandparents witnessed the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Intifadas — constant threats to our survival and right to self determination. Their fear was legitimate.
But to be young and Jewish is to experience mass shootings every week. It is the knowledge our campus Hillel or synagogue could be attacked. It is antisemitism within our dorms and classes. It is hearing from the president that those who chant “Jews will not replace us” are fine people.
The threat of our survival has not changed. But rather than our battles being across the world, they are at our front door. We too are scared, and yet, we have no suitcase packed. Our country has taught us to prepare for anything, should we be thrust directly into the battle. There is no place or time to run. Instead, we’ve been forced to fight.
To say the Jewish youth is increasingly growing disconnected from Israel is in my mind an unfair characterization. We have grown up in a country that showed us our leaders do not value our safety. So when it comes to our second home, we have been forced to ask the same questions. I’m not disconnected from Israel. I know more about her and my relationship with her than ever.
I don’t want to break open every argument about historical ownership or broken treaties. I simply want to provide my perspective.
If in order to gain a homeland, another people had to lose theirs, that is not a Jewish value. Keeping these people within checkpoints and barriers, filling their neighborhoods with armed soldiers, this is not a Jewish value.
Taking what little land they have left and occupying it with far more advanced resources, this is not a Jewish value.
We are a people of righteousness. A community that not only looks out for their own, but understands the importance of uplifting the world at large. Where is Tikkun Olam in these policies and actions? How is killing a Palestinian boy or evicting families from their homes making the world a better place for future generations?
Israel, the home I once celebrated, now reminds me of the country I live in that disappoints me at almost every turn. Values of freedom and justice are mere words without the pursuit to ensure they hold true for every individual. We are a people who have a long relationship with fear and running. So how can we not see what we are doing to our brethren? No longer is Israel the frail country defending herself, but a powerful government and military on the offensive.
Yes, our threat of survival still looms, but the power dynamics have shifted. Hypocrisy must be recognized and responded to with self-reflection rather than defensiveness. Our fear remains legitimate and yet we do not see the fear we are inflicting.
I am not disconnected from Israel. I love Israel, but I struggle with unjust decisions made on her behalf. I love my people, but I struggle with our stubborn defensiveness, our fear-based aggression. I have not lost the Jewish narrative. Rather, I own my position as a Jew: both oppressed and privileged. I cannot be scared that the past will repeat itself without understanding my own role in repeating history itself. I cannot let survival instinct and trauma determine my path forward.
Stevie Kollin currently attends Haverford College and is studying Sociology and Gender & Sexuality. They were very involved in the Metro Detroit Jewish community before college, taking a lead in BBYO as well as being a student activist and member of multiple drumlines. Stevie has worked with Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, Hazon and JCRC/AJC.