Working in the arts, it is rare that I leave my house before 10 am. So it was truly a bizarre experience to be on the road before 8 am. The purpose for this early morning adventure? A trip to Bethesda home to discuss Israel.
The meeting was a ‘home meeting;’ a test version of something that the Jewish Federation is hoping will occur in many homes throughout the area. The idea is to create a safe place for people to talk about Israel as the area commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state.
The room was mainly filled with suburban women in their 40s. We went around the room introducing ourselves, telling what our personal connection (if any) to Israel was. I was fifth to go and as these women started to talk in rosy terms about their love for the country I started to get nervous. How can I explain my connection to Israel?
The truth is Israel broke my heart. During the most recent Lebanon war I felt it break. It was more painful then any breakup or rejection I have ever experienced. I walked down the street daily close to tears and the wounds still have not healed.
Before that point I was not naive. I visited Israel in the summer of 1999 just before the second Intifada erupted. Our tour guides lived on the West Bank we went and visited. We were fed propaganda that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. That discomfort was also felt when visiting the Western Wall and not feeling the spiritual wave I had hoped for but instead feeling a wave of disappointment in the tourist trap it seemed.
Yet, I found the glory’s of the land real. It was incredible to see the Negev. Beauteous desert that seems to go on for ever. And even more incredible to see the desert blooming and thriving. I could go on and on naming the things I loved during my trip: visiting with family friends, seeing Arabs and Jews co-habiting in places like Jaffa, experiencing Israeli theater for the first time, feeling the spiritual wave in Safad and the indescribable feeling of, for once, not being a minority. But all of those wonderful feels are tainted by the bitterness of the conflict; by my disappointment in my people.
Sitting there waiting for my turn I noted my arms and legs crossing, my body closing off, no longer feeling safe. How could I tell these people, including the couple of Israelis in the room, what I really felt. When it was my turn I took a deep breath and spoke. I told them my connection, the glory and disappointment. I felt much relieved when the two women sitting to my right expressed their own confusion with the situation.
As a group we read an article about Israel by Israeli author Daniel Gordis. The article focused on how Israel can start to once more be viewed, as it was intended, as a place of ‘hope’ for the Jewish people. We started to discuss and it became difficult. The article did not ignore, but did not take any responsibility for the Palestinian situation, which I had a problem with. I can’t see how a land can become a land of hope when it destroys the hope of so many. Of course, I see the significance of having a Jewish state but I will not sit by quietly as my religion denies the humanity of others.
As I spoke I had to fight back tears. And even while writing this I can feel myself get choked up. The hurt is real and so close to the surface. I wasn’t the only person with tears in their voice as they spoke. Within the room we had two people who had family members killed in suicide bombings, we had people who have hid their Jewishness for fear of anti-semitism, and we had some of these suburban women start to admit their own confusion.
As the meeting was wrapping up the Israeli moderator asked for our feedback. He asked if we felt the meeting was successful, he asked if we felt it was “good for Israel”?
Good for Israel, who knows, but potentially good for the community here. A big issue with the Jewish community (and Gentile as well) is that Israel has become a taboo subject. Say anything negative and you are branded anti-semitic. People are being censored and even worse, people are self-censoring for fear of insulting and for fear of being branded something they are not.
Having a place to express your feelings, opinions, emotions in a mixed setting without that fear can be nothing but useful. It is a model that the Peace Cafe (run through Theater J and Busboys and Poets) has already been working with. It is a model that will continue to grow as Theater J puts together our Festival offerings; which have intentionally been chosen to foster these conversations. And it is a conversation I want to have with you.
I feel I still need to talk and listen. So, I want to do my own test. In the next month or two I want to have a dinner party (because really, breakfast is way too early) where my friends can get together and talk about Israel. Those who feel connected and those who don’t, those who’ve been and those who never want to go, Jews and Non-Jews. I don’t want Israel to be taboo, I don’t want people to walk on egg shells. I want to talk about the difficult subjects. I want to list the questions. I want to find a way for me to talk with out feeling tears well up. Anyone out there interested in joining?