Or so says the rabbi’s wife I met today. This afternoon, I was doing some advocacy for the 40,000 refugees who live in my neighborhood. After having heard incredibly racist remarks (and in a different circumstance, I was told “Reform Jews aren’t Jews”), I headed to a cafe to do so some work. Something to distract me from the incredible pulsating hatred that surrounds me.
I noticed a Judaica shop. For a while now, I’ve come to the conclusion that Israeli Jews and American/Diaspora Jews are not the same- I don’t even think we could say we practice the same religion. All the values I’ve been taught about Judaism- compassion, caring for the stranger, justice, diversity, pluralism- they are close to non-existent in this country. The few brave people who embrace them are ridiculed from left and right. Almost every Jew I meet here has some community they hate- and they love to tell me about it. Secular, Orthodox, Mizrachim, Reform and on and on and on. It’s like Chinese water torture- you know you can always count on the next drop to fall. It’s painful.
Growing up, I was taught in synagogue that Jews are a people- that we’re a religion and a culture. There’s a lot of truth to that. If we were simply a faith, we wouldn’t have Jewish languages, Jewish literature, Jewish cuisine, and so on. I can’t recall seeing a Presbyterian deli. And if we were just a culture, we wouldn’t have holidays based on the Bible.
As I’ve spent more and more time in Israel, however, I’ve come to realize I have next to nothing in common with the Jews here other than the fact that we call ourselves Jews. For sure, I’ve met some amazing people- and in fact, often the less someone here identifies as a bona fide Israeli, the better we tend to get along. Meaning, olim, Hasidim, Arabs, and even Sabras who feel disconnected from aspects of the dominant culture. The less someone buys into the features of the “national” identity, the more open I find they are to my diverse background and to exploring other communities. Something that’s probably true in most countries- the people more willing to break from nationalist orthodoxy tend to be me open-minded. And you’d be surprised- someone could be quite secular and identify as left-wing here and still be utterly nationalistic and insistent on everyone speaking Hebrew, law and order, and other demands of the state. After all, their sector founded it.
Which brings me to today. I walked into the Judaica shop. I wanted to know if the owners had an opinion on the refugees I live with. I was hoping that perhaps there’s some hidden light binding us together and that actually we are all Jews. That a few bad apples can’t spoil the bunch.
Wow was I wrong. I had walked in saying I just wanted to browse around. The Chabad rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) asked about my Jewish background. I said I was Reform and that I like to visit all kinds of communities, including Chabad. I also mentioned I had friends who were in Chabad. She interrogated me about our practices and when she found out we use musical instruments and sometimes microphones on Shabbat- she launched into a tirade about how we were desecrating Shabbat and God’s name.
She then asked me what I felt my purpose was on Earth. A pretty big question for a bookstore, but I answered. I said I felt my purpose was to repair the world, to lessen the hate between us, to bring compassion.
And in an answer that broke my heart she said: “you’re wrong”. She said my job was to learn the Lubavitcher Rabbi‘s teachings and fix myself.
Stuck in a state of shock and disgust, I slowly made my way to the door. She asked what I meant by repairing the world. I said that today, I had done some work to help refugees in my neighborhood.
And I quote: “These ‘so called’ refugees are infiltrators. God gave us the Land of Israel. They should go back to Africa and fix their own countries.”
I’m hoping around now your chin has dropped. But there’s more. When I told her to go talk to the people in my neighborhood, she said: “there’s no racism in Israel. I don’t need to talk to them, I read about how they steal bikes on a website.”
Before I left, I asked one more question: “how many Africans do you know?”
The answer: “none, but I read online.”
If you want to know why the world is pulling at the seems these days, this is why. Not because the internet isn’t a useful tool (it is, you’re reading this cool blog on it!). But rather because it can’t be your only source of information. Someone else’s opinion on a screen is an ineffective substitute for human interaction. For gathering facts. For meeting other people. This lesson is as applicable to America or Europe or anywhere else. This has to stop.
I told the rebbetzin (and her husband who came back by then) to go to my neighborhood and talk to the refugees. To have compassion. That Judaism is compassion. To consider all the travails our people has been through. Our people. I struggled to say the “our” as I saw the utter indifference in their eyes.
Knowing a lost battle when I see one, I half-heartedly joked about “two Jews, three opinions”. They laughed and I stepped outside.
I can’t lie- this experience made me hate Chabad and everything they stand for. I had/have to work really hard to remember I have friends in Chabad who aren’t racist and that we can’t judge an entire group based on a couple people. I also have always found myself welcomed by Chabad as a Reform and queer Jew in the States. And I also grew to understand some of the resentment secular Israelis feel about how religion manifests itself here.
The past few weeks, I’ve never felt further from my Judaism. As I discover the Palestinian village I live on top of and the depraved racism of many Israelis towards refugees, it becomes harder and harder for me to feel proud as a Jew. Because it feels so far from my values and it makes me ashamed to call myself one.
The best thing I’ve done in the past few days is increase my involvement in advocating for justice here. For everyone. For the underdogs. For the real “Jews” as I see it. By standing up to my government who commits atrocities in my name, I can take back my pride in my heritage. A heritage that consists of spiritual resistance, of community organizing, of literature, of fighting for civil rights.
The privilege I enjoy as a Jew here has helped me understand how my White Christian straight American friends with a conscience feel. There is an uneasy guilt that can eat away at you as you see the harm being perpetrated towards your neighbors. That oftentimes you’re spared because of your identity.
So I’ve decided to take that feeling of guilt and put it to use. I’m talking to my neighbors about supporting refugees. I’m doing more of my shopping at refugee-run businesses. I’m going to eat less at Rabbinate-certified kosher restaurants because the Chief Rabbi has come out in favor of deporting my friends. And instead eat more at refugee-owned restaurants. And I’m going to keep talking and talking and protesting until somebody gives a shit.
Fortunately I’m not alone and other Jews here- who act like the label matters- are standing up for justice.
The question is when the police come to tear apart families like the Gestapo (or ICE)- which side will you be on?
Make some noise people. Lest you find yourself re-reading rabbinical texts in a Judaica shop in Tel Aviv. Selling wares from an empty wagon.