My great-great-grandparents were among the first Zionists. But once I finally started talking, I learned I’m not the only one grappling with my thoughts on the Jewish state.
In March 1999, I went to Israel for the first time. I was fifteen. While there, I kept a journal. My first entry reads:
“Today was my first full day in Israel. Nothing has bothered me. It’s as if the air brings total peace to my body…It’s as if my heritage is my medicine soothing my complaints…I always thought this was HOME and HOLY only to the Jews. But…I was mistaken…I didn’t realize Jerusalem is HOLY to so many other religious movements…I question why this controversy over Jerusalem is so violent…I cannot begin to explain how much of my own personal religious beliefs I have reflected upon in the past two days. It could take years to explain, record, and understand all of this…However, I think that I’ve come to a general conclusion, for the present moment that is…I believe in God. I believe in my Judaism. I believe in my Jewishness. But I don’t know what kind of a Jew I am.”
I’m 33 now. While a lot has changed since that spring-break trip with my parents and siblings, I still don’t know what kind of Jew I am. I grew up and identify as a Reform Jew. I now write “G-d” without the “o” out of honor and respect. I say the Shema every night before I go to sleep and Modeh Ani every morning before I get out of bed. I bless my food when I eat, my hands hovering over the plate. I turn off social media for Shabbat. I go to temple on the High Holidays. And still I grapple with this: am I the kind of Jew who remains silent, or the kind of Jew who speaks?
As an internationally touring spoken word poet, activist, journalist, and educator, I have spent my life and career speaking publicly about being a rape survivor and about my decade-long eating disorder. I share my most personal experiences and thoughts; I speak up and out for people of color and queer rights, about dismantling ableism, transphobia, classism, violence and war, to create a just world where everyone can choose to share their own stories and truths. And yet, when I am asked to take a stance on Israel and Palestine, my fingers freeze and my voice numbs.
Now, finally, I speak.
I am by no means the first liberal American Jew to do so, and certainly not the first with an opinion. Still, I suppressed my voice for two decades. I feared if I skewed too far to one side of the conflict I’d lose family and friends who live in Israel, relatives who’ve dedicated their careers to Israel’s right to exist, or that I’d dishonor my great-great-grandparents, who fled pogroms and oppression in 1890s Eastern Europe and became early, active Zionists. I feared I’d become a “self-hating Jew,” that I’d lose jobs performing at Jewish Community Centers and Israel education programs around the world.
On the other side I worried I’d alienate Palestinian friends whose families live in the West Bank; Muslim and Arab friends who are racially profiled and fear daily for their lives. I also get paychecks from organizations whose leaders are outwardly anti-occupation.
I am not alone. Over the past six months, I formally interviewed eighteen people – American Jews, Israelis, Palestinian Americans, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, anti-occupation activists, Pro-Israel activists, Zionists, rabbis and others, in an attempt to understand this great lack of honest discourse. I started with ancestral documents and letters my mother had on file; then I reached out to friends – activists and educators I knew were engaged in this dialogue. They sent me to their friends, who sent me to their friends, and it snowballed from there, all in my quest to answer this central question that’s been nagging at my soul for years:
Is there a space for nuance, for those of us who have felt silenced and finally want to speak?
* * *
Harris Horwich, my great-great-grandfather, was an official elected delegate at the Seventeenth Annual Convention of the Knights of Zion in January 1914 at the Chicago Hebrew Institute. As a committed Zionist at that time, it was his goal to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the historic Land of Israel. He writes in his 1918 ethical will, addressed to his children and wife:
I command, order, and forswear you, by all that is Dear and holy to you, as sure as your mother lives, that each one of you shall teach Torah, Hebrew, and our people’s history to his sons and daughters in their youth; for I will not find rest in the grave if my descendants will grow up without learning Torah, without knowledge of our people’s language and all that our people experienced…
Horwich’s grandson and namesake – my grandfather – was a lieutenant in the United States Army. He fought the Nazis in Germany, receiving a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
On September 8, 1945, six days after World War II officially ended, my grandfather writes his dad a letter, wishing him a Happy New Year, telling him he attended services at the Munich opera house with two thousand other soldiers and refugees: “Yes Dad, I’ll long remember observing the high holidays in Munich, one of the centers of Hitler’s Nazism.” He also mentions the 55,000 displaced Jews still stranded in camps in Bavaria, and asks his father to send him not cash, but clothes, soap and toothpaste for those in need.
I come from a bloodline of idealists, which hits me every time I read my grandfather’s letter.
Yet my Zionist great-great-grandfather’s ethical will makes me fear that he is in fact rolling in his grave because of what I’ve come to regard as my genuine opinion on Israel, the place he wanted desperately to exist as a Jewish state:
I am against Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. I understand and empathize with the existence of and right for a Jewish national state. I cannot overlook the terrifyingly vast amount of anti-Semitism that exists worldwide and I recognize the Holocaust’s impact on making the establishment of a Jewish state a literal life-or-death necessity. Yet, in my experience, the American Jewish community at large has not made space to question the occupation, when – to me – it feels directly at odds with the Jewish values I hold dearest. Discourse, questioning, dialogue, and social justice are some of the things at the crux of who we are. The Torah states 36 times to honor the stranger as one’s self. It begs us to have empathy. How can I unwaveringly support a Jewish state that is in any way contributing to the suffering of others?
Deep down, however, I know this means that my great-great-grandfather’s commitment to Jewish ethics, tradition, and community have been passed down to me, and that it has prevailed.
* * *
Storytelling is the backbone of my work as an artist, activist and educator. Desperate to understand why I have silenced my feelings around Israel and Palestine, I turned to a rabbi, which seemed like a natural step for a Jew feeling internally conflicted. Of the dozens of rabbis I know personally and professionally, I knew Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow would have a meaningful perspective; I’ve always been inspired by his pulse on questions that concern vulnerability, authenticity and voice.
I explain to Avi that I recognize I’m part of a disembodied Jewish diaspora. I did not serve in the Israeli military. I do not live in Israel. This complicates and questions my authenticity and desire to speak out when I – an American Jew – am not inherently part of that space. Avi helps me realize that I keep blaming everyone else for making me silent – American Jews, right-wing Zionists, left-wing American activists. “It’s not because of what people are telling you, it’s because of what you’re telling yourself,” he says. “Start with what’s coming from within. That’s the most important voice.”
Chatting with Avi makes me want to talk to those who have consciously made the opposite decision, to be loud and as vocal as they can — people like Sara Sandmel, a Jewish educator and organizer with If Not Now, a movement working to end American Jewish support of the occupation. Sara, who uses gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their) to identify themself, was one of my campers when I worked as a counselor at my childhood sleepaway camp in Maine. Having always admired Sara’s social justice work, I sat down with them at their apartment in Chicago on a sweltering summer day. I ask Sara, who grew up in a Zionist household and spent a high school semester living on a kibbutz, how they balance their thoughts on Israel and Palestine now versus at other points in life.
“Israel was this place where I felt I could be a more whole self,” Sara says, “but I also knew I was not getting the full story. Me and my lefty friends could see the narrative that was being spun by this trip we were on and we were pretty cynical about it and came to the conclusion we should come back and figure it out for ourselves.”
With the help of their father, Sara found a gap-year program – Sara was the first and only American to go, joining thirty Israelis taking a year off before serving compulsory time in the Israel Defense Forces. It was 2008. Throughout that year, Sara came to the conclusion that Zionism, and this place Zionism built, was deeply broken. “Even if [Israel-Palestine] was magically solved and everyone was happy and there was no safety threat … there’s still Ashkenazi racism toward Sephardi and Mizrahi and African Jews,” Sara says, referring to a rift among various Jewish demographic communities both in Israel and worldwide.
Later, at Macalester College in Minnesota, Jewish and non-Jewish students alike assumed that because Sara was Jewish and spent time in Israel, Sara loved Israel and was against Palestine. After a controversy erupted during Sara’s sophomore year over a campus speaker – a Holocaust survivor who was speaking out against Israel – the Macalester Jewish community underwent complex conversations about who should and should not be allowed to speak. That summer, two students – one Palestinian, one Israeli – reached out to Sara and the three built a week of programming around Israel and Palestine that successfully shifted campus discourse for a time.
After college, Sara got a job with a Jewish after-school program and also became involved organizing in Chicago with a Jewish social justice group. In the midst of the Gaza war in 2014, Sara watched very different perspectives popping up on friends’ social feeds: some were being pulled into war from the Israeli military reserves, others supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, a campaign to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. Another Chicago organizer told Sara to channel their feelings into action through the social justice group. But Sara tried to explain: the Jewish group would lose its funding and not be able to do any work in Chicago if the group took a stance against Palestine.
“There’s so many other Jewish stories that have been completely erased in service of this [one] story that justifies the state of Israel’s continued existence.”
“Because Jews have found safety in assimilating into whiteness,” Sara continues, “when white Jews speak, our identities and stories are assumed to be the stories of all Jews. Part of the anti-occupation work is undoing that assumption and making space for a diversity of voices who can speak for themselves.”
The Holocaust, for example, is often positioned as “everyone’s trauma,” Sara tells me, “but no one in my immediate lineage was affected by the Holocaust.”
Opposing the occupation not only muddles the global Jewish narratives around what Israel is and is supposed to be, it also complicates what American Jewish community life should be. I feel like the whole point of Judaism and what I have been taught my whole life is to question everything: speak up, speak out. This belief led me to an organization called Open Hillel.
The primary goal of Open Hillel — which is not affiliated with Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization — is to eliminate Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership” for Israel activities. The standards, established in 2010, state in part that Hillel will not support or partner with those who deny the right of Israel to exist or who delegitimize or apply a double standard to it. Founded in 1923, Hillel is represented at over 550 colleges and universities in North America and, at many schools, it is the heartbeat of Jewish campus life. According to a 2014 Hillel International strategy document, the organization raises roughly $90 million annually.
Rachel Sandalow-Ash, Open Hillel’s co-founder and national organizer, grew up going to Jewish day school and synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, receiving “the standard American Jewish Pro-Israel narratives” – the same narratives I heard at my synagogue in the Chicago suburbs. She got involved with labor justice work as a Harvard University freshman. She then joined the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) – a Hillel-affiliated group – and was exposed to professors, journalists, human rights activists, Palestinian Americans, and voices she’d never before known. “I started to have the feeling I had been lied to for a lot of my life,” she says. “Not even explicitly, more that there had been a giant sin of omission that certain perspectives had been deliberately not told.”
Her sophomore year, in 2012, PJA was planning an event with Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation,” set to feature two speakers – one American Jew and one Israeli Jew, both of whom had been involved with protests against the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank by Israeli forces. The group was clear: obviously this event should happen at Hillel.
After publicizing the event, Hillel’s director reached out to the group: he’d gotten calls from Hillel International, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and private donors saying this event could not happen at Harvard Hillel, which stood to lose a million dollars if the event were to proceed, and that it violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel activities.
PJA members reached out to friends at other schools and heard similar stories of Jewish students unable to work directly with Palestinians speakers or groups. There were also reports of Jewish student leaders asked to resign after being affiliated with events that included speakers who supported the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions Movement. Jews themselves had also been barred from speaking at Hillels because of their public stance.
PJA moved the event out of Hillel but felt strongly it wasn’t a choice they should have had to make. Sandalow-Ash says that “on a personal level, Hillel’s decision to exclude our event crystalized for me that this whole Israel-Palestine thing wasn’t thousands of miles away.”
She sites an “active, organized effort” by American Jewish institutional leadership “to keep us from hearing criticism of Israel. To keep us from talking to Palestinians. To keep us from any sort of exposure to alternative perspectives so that we would keep supporting Israel blindly.”
I well up with tears, a lump lodged in my throat. This – this – is why I feel so stagnant inside. This isn’t just happening abroad. This is why I felt so compelled to first stay silent and now, to speak.
I have tons of friends who are Hillel employees, and I’ve worked at and with various Hillel campuses for years. I care profoundly for Hillel. Their work is vital, so I appreciate this aspect of Open Hillel’s mission; they aren’t looking for an alternative.
Sandalow-Ash tells me, “There’s no point in doing a campaign to change an institution if you don’t believe in that institution.
“I actually deeply believe in Hillel’s mission,” she adds, noting that her college experience with the organization was of a welcoming, very religiously open and pluralistic space, which is a formative tenet of Hillel’s mission. Hillel does not limit student speech; any student is welcome to express their opinion.
Open Hillel deliberately does not take a stance on Israel and Palestine. “People sometimes ask me: ‘What do you think should happen in Israel/Palestine?’ The answer is, I don’t know,” Sandalow-Ash says. “Why don’t you ask me about what I think should happen in the American Jewish community?”
* * *
Because I believe this dialogue and discourse should include a diversity of voices, I reach out to a Palestinian American friend, who connects me with several Palestinian American activists. I speak on the phone with Dr. Naser Alsharif, a professor at Creighton University and the director of Middle East Cultural and Educational Services, a nonprofit organization that fosters community among local Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans.
Dr. Alsharif, who is Muslim, has long engaged in interfaith work with the Jewish and Christian communities in Omaha, Nebraska, where he lives, having worked with the Tri-Faith Initiative to build a campus with a synagogue, church, mosque, and Abrahamic center to cultivate interfaith programming. He says Palestine-Israel is often the elephant in the room. “It’s like a taboo,” he tells me. “You cannot even get there … I struggled in terms of what they do to somewhat silence people or to prevent an open discussion about that.”
Dr. Alsharif’s “wonderful” journey with Tri-Faith came to an end when he tried to invite a Palestinian bishop, an advocate for Palestinian rights, to speak at the center. Dr. Alsharif ultimately resigned from his board position after feeling pressured to answer one singular question posed to him by others in the center’s leadership: does the bishop accept the rights of the state of Israel to exist?
“What does this have to do with our journey of better understanding between our faiths?” Dr. Alsharif asks me, incredulously. He laments that the “Palestine-Israel” issue, which is how he refers to the conflict, “divides people even in situations where people are trying to do wonderful things for us here in America.”
I also speak with my friend Aysha, a writer born and raised in Jordan, who asks that only her first name be published for fear of jeopardizing her work. Aysha tells me that she too feels compelled not to talk about Israel and Palestine – both at college in the U.S. and at home in Jordan. “If I want to sincerely critique [the conflict], it is not accepted,” she says, before adding: “Maybe I self-censor. Maybe it’s me.” I think about my conversation with Rabbi Avi.
“I’m too scared to have a real discussion because there’s always this red line called anti-Semitism and I never know when I cross it,” she goes on. “So it’s limiting my contact with people who identify as Jewish, and my friendships, my human bonds, my relationships.”
* * *
It felt important to expand my conversations not only to Palestinian voices, but Israeli voices as well. While teaching at Brandeis University this summer, I crossed paths with Jennifer Cohen, who has spent most of her career as a social worker at community-based nonprofits. She’s currently the Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab Israeli citizen organization with an equally represented Jewish/Arab/Palestinian board and staff.
A dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, Dr. Cohen grew up working-class in New Jersey. After a youth group trip to Israel at fifteen, she made aliyah at seventeen and served in the Israeli military.
She moves me by saying it was responsible of me to refrain from speaking out until now – until I was working in both Jewish and activist spaces, sure of who I was and what I wanted to say. And now that I’m sure, she tells me, I have a responsibility to speak. Tears fall from my cheeks.
“So that feels like a very cool thing,” she says, “and very Jewish.”
“What part of it?” I ask, through watered eyes.
“Israel’s a very magical place,” she says, “and it can’t be a coincidence so many people think that.” If we can create a model that works there, Dr. Cohen continues, allowing as many people as possible “to live lives of dignity, then that is a light into the nations.”
Dr. Cohen reminds me that Jews are “the Chosen People.” “It’s like ‘chosen’ to face it,” she says, “and not look the other way.”
I wipe my face, smile, suck in through my nose, and thank her.
She stresses that the conversation must include a discussion of two issues at hand: the Arab-Israeli conflict (between Israel and the not-yet-recognized state of Palestine) and the issue of inequality among the citizens of Israel, which includes Jews, Palestinians and Arabs.
Dr. Cohen, who believes Palestine should have its own state, says her family’s “spiritual and moral fiber is being slowly destroyed because we are an occupier.” She adds, “You can’t oppress a people and not have it destroy you.”
Shortly after returning home from Brandeis, I sit with an Ethiopian Israeli named Beejhy Barhany at Tsion Café, an Ethiopian restaurant she and her husband own in Harlem. She leans back and forth passionately as she recounts her journey seventeen years ago from Israel to America, “the land of opportunity.” Three years later, she founded the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, an educational organization that celebrates diversity in the Jewish world.
Barhany tells me how she and her family emigrated from Ethiopia by foot in 1980. They arrived in Israel when she was seven, by way of Sudan, and Barhany later fought in the Israeli army. “We went through a lot to arrive in Israel,” she says. And yet, when they got there, they felt judged. They were told to convert, as if they were never Jewish.
“Our Torah, our background, is to respect and live in peace and harmony with everybody else,” she says, “and that is not practiced much in Israel.”
Barhany shares her view that Palestinians are a minority group who have the right to live in Israel. “First do within your house and then you go to the outskirts,” she says. “Then we can go ahead and accommodate other people.”
She notes how Zionism was once categorized as racism by the United Nations, and so – from the perspectives of many – bringing black Jews to Israel was a way to counter that claim.
“I’m very critical of Israel but yet this is a country that molded me to be who I am,” she says. “I love Israel and because I love it so much, I want it to change and do better with the way they treat ethnic groups. Being critical is not out of being anti-Israel. It is because you care.”
She looks at me, her eyes wide and bright. “We walked almost three months by foot to arrive in Israel so are you gonna tell me this is not the love of Israel?”
* * *
In the interests of not sweeping anything under the rug, I knew I had to consult those outspoken in the Pro-Israel activist space, too. I wanted to know if they ever felt silenced.
Ron Wasserman, a banker who volunteers as chairman for Fuel For Truth, an education and advocacy organization, described the Arab-Israeli conflict as a “dense fog.” “If you don’t know anything, and you’re just coming into it, you just don’t know where to go.”
Wasserman says that while he is Pro-Israel, he’s not undiscerning of the other narrative. “I’m a Pro-Palestinian Zionist. As a Zionist, I believe in it in the true sense of the word, which is the Jewish right to self-determination… I use the definition as it was created and played out in the founding fathers of the Jewish state.”
Wasserman tells me he thinks “the biggest tragedy of the conflict is that it is seen through one lens only – an anti-Israel lens.” He says the anti-Israel hostility harbored by the larger Pro-Palestinian movement causes activists to overlook the countless other factors impacting Palestinians’ wellbeing.
I ask him if he’s always been able to express his thoughts on Israel.
“No. No,” says Wasserman, a self-proclaimed history nerd. “I started reading and I haven’t stopped and it’s been a decade. As I started reading these books, the fog started to lift.”
It hits me. The lifting of the fog – that’s what’s been happening to me.
In the process, I’m drawn to Chloé Simone Valdary’s July 2014 Tablet magazine article “To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter From an Angry Black Woman,” which went viral. With over 14,000 followers on Facebook, the 23-year-old former Tikvah Fund fellow, who is not Jewish herself, has become a force in the Pro-Israel activism space. In 2014, she started the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America’s “This is what a Zionist looks like” campaign, which coupled images of celebrities and others worldwide who identify as Zionists with the hashtag #ThisIsWhataZionistLooksLike.
We meet for coffee on an August afternoon in Manhattan. I ask her how she became so passionate about Israel.
“Israel is somehow part of my identity,” she says. “I view it very much in relation to my personal identity.” Born and raised in New Orleans, Valdary grew up in an “atypical Christian home” that wasn’t affiliated with Protestantism, Catholicism, or any other “ism.” Non-denominational, her family observed Shabbat and the High Holy Days and kept kosher-style, refraining from shellfish and pork. She describes it as a “Philo-Semitic environment.” Her father was very interested in geopolitics, so Israel was talked about and discussed at home early on.
In college, Valdary began Pro-Israel advocacy work on campus at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University. Now, she is the Director of Partnerships and Outreach at Jerusalem U, an organization that uses Israel to help young Jews engage with their Judaism.
She says that we must examine the Arab-Israeli conflict within the larger context of what the Israel “project” is all about. She says it’s brimming with ideas and nuance surrounding the issue of sovereignty, and the challenges of a formerly powerless people who now have power.
“I remembered what the term ‘Israel’ means in the first place,” she continues. “In the Torah, the term ‘Israel’ was given to Jacob … the angel blessed him and was like, ‘You should be called Israel for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.’ So it’s like that constant wrestling. I was doing some wrestling. And perhaps it was the nature of life to have to wrestle.”
Valdary’s reminder of the definition of “Israel” shakes me at my soul.
I tell Valdary that for fifteen years I chose to quiet the wrestling within.
“It’s exhausting to silence wrestling,” she interjects.
“It’s totally exhausting,” I say. “And that’s the thing that finally snapped for me.”
“I should mention,” Valdary adds, “I consider myself center-right. I don’t speak to a lot of people on the left, so I appreciate this dialogue, this back and forth.”
“I do too,” I say. “I think this is the point.” I reflect back on my conversation with Rabbi Avi, who had told me that he wanted me to “play in the [proverbial] playground. But I definitely think it’s a tragedy whether it’s the bully impacting your sense of a lack of voice, or yourself silencing yourself.”
“The playground,” Avi concluded, was made “for really interesting disagreements.”
After meeting Valdary, I reread Harris Horwich’s ethical will. It is well past sundown. I rush to finish before I light the Shabbat candles, and I sob as I read. On one hand, I feel like my great-great-grandfather: I am doing this questioning, this talking, for the Jewish people. Yet, he also spoke out against those who denounce Israel. Is that not what I’m doing in some way?
This is the wrestling, I think.
* * *
It’s mid-August. I’m onstage in Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ve been flown and sponsored by the Jewish organization Limmud for two and a half weeks of performing my poetry and facilitating writing workshops at their conferences, local Jewish schools, and unaffiliated performance venues around the country. It is the second day of my trip. Tonight, at a jazz club called Straight No Chaser, the crowd is intimate and small.
Earlier this afternoon, I performed at a local Jewish day school, sharing my eating disorder recovery journey, and talking about empowerment and self-esteem. When a student asked if I did poems about politics, I shared “You Could Be Next.” It’s about ending Islamophobia and racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, and eliminating racism toward black Americans. It also goes into my own experiences of anti-Semitism. It felt particularly raw sharing it in post-apartheid South Africa.
So here I am now, onstage, in front of a microphone, halfway across the world. I look around the room. While I relish in the gift of performing to an auditorium of hundreds or thousands, there is something inviting about sharing secrets with a small room. Suddenly, I feel submerged in a fearless desire to take up space. I take a deep breath, and speak publicly about the Israel-Palestine conflict for the first time in my entire life.
I tell them that I understand Israel’s reasons for existence and that I’m also against the occupation. I tell them the Jewish diaspora and Judaism matters to me; it matters that we are safe and have autonomy in the world, and my soul is inspired that a country exists where our holidays and Shabbat are celebrated not in secret or underneath someone else’s religious sovereignty. I tell them about the epiphany I had two days ago, before I got on the plane. I was at my desk, transcribing the teary section of my interview with Rachel Sandalow-Ash from Open Hillel, when I began to crack – when my silence began to break. It hit me: anti-occupation and Pro-Palestinian activists worldwide call Israel an apartheid state – there is even an Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of events – worldwide – that protests Israel as an apartheid state. And here I was, going to South Africa. I tell the audience I want to understand how people in South Africa wrestle with that word, with the struggle and pain and trauma that “apartheid” carries. I’ve been lost somewhere in the nuance. Except that now, in this very moment, I’m no longer afraid.
* * *
When I was a kid at Jewish day camp in the Chicago suburbs, we had an Israel day, as many such camps do. We gathered under a big white tent with a mock Western Wall. We wrote notes on construction paper and put them in the fake wall. Someone – a counselor or camp administrator – was going to Israel and they were going to put our notes into the real wall in Jerusalem, as is custom. On a piece of purple paper, in thin Crayola marker, I begged G-d for world peace.
I wished then, and still do now, that there was never any blood on any Jewish hands. That we could be infallible. Except there has been blood. And my whole heart loves my people and my faith. And so I wrestle. I Israel. Day in. Day out.
In September, back in New York City, I tell my therapist – who does somatic therapy, often looking specifically at trauma – that I can’t seem to grasp the feeling of presence, stability, and awe I felt in South Africa.
She opens her hands above me. You’re fractured, she says, you’re all over the place; we have to bring you back together into oneness.
It hits me. This journey of questioning and understanding has been about my bringing myself into oneness. Me, wrestling with my many selves, bringing myself to authenticity.
Now that I’ve spoken, I have unleashed the lump lodged in my throat that clamped up whenever Israel and Palestine came up. I no longer feel silenced – by others or myself. I know I am not alone. I am no longer afraid. So, I will continue to speak.
And I will continue to dedicate a significant portion of my work as an educator and performer to Jewish spaces, communities, and organizations. I recognize that I risk losing jobs as a result of publishing this viewpoint. And it’s a risk I’m willing to take.