“Israel is for the Jews. It is a Jewish state,” said Anan, our Birthright group leader. I had liked him a lot before he uttered those words. I wasn’t prepared for this subtle prejudice, but realized then that I had been overlooking comments like these for ten days.
We were nearing the end of our free trip around Israel. Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but nonetheless drill into your head, is that they want you to “make Aliyah,” to return to the Holy Land and increase Israel’s numbers.
The first few days of our trip had me thinking that I could really move to Israel. The nature of the country alone was startlingly beautiful. Every landscape seemed limitless, despite the fact that Israel is such a small country. Immediately off the plane, our group was boarded onto a coach bus and driven to the tip of the Golan Heights. We stood on the border, looking out at Lebanon to our left, listening to bombs going off in Syria to our right.
For ten restless days, we toured the country on that bus, from the Tel Aviv to the Negev Desert, from the Banias Nature Reserve to Jerusalem. We went from stop to stop, climbing mountains before noon and sleeping somewhere different every night. One night in a hostel in Jerusalem, another night in a kibbutz by the Dead Sea, another in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Almost every time I took my seat on the bus, I’d fall asleep, like everyone else, only to be awoken by sweet Anan saying, “Wakey, wakey, everyone. Kosher food and eggs.”
My days and nights blended together. We moved around so much that I couldn’t keep track of which day we kayaked on the Jordan River and which day we watched the sun rise on the Masada. It didn’t matter. I was making close friends and falling in love with the State of Israel.
Of course, I had been to Israel a few times before with my family, but never as a Jew. My father, a Christian Arab, is an Israeli citizen. He is the youngest of eight siblings, and therefore, the only one who can say that he was born in Israel, and not Palestine. Since my American-born mother is Jewish, I am a Jew, and was thus eligible to go on Birthright. When my group arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, jet lagged and awkward around each other, Israelis all over the airport called out to us. “Hey, Taglit! Welcome home,” they said. And I knew they meant it.
I’ve never been religious, or even a believer in God. However, there’s something about being raised Jewish that sticks with you. It’s cultural, and unless you’re in the tribe, you don’t get it. For years I had been the token Jew among my friends, enduring jokes about my curly hair or being cheap with a smirk and an equally racist remark. Now, in Israel, I loved how Jewish everything was. After being raised in a Puritan-based society where citizens question President Obama’s Christianity as a condition of his presidency, it was refreshing to suddenly be somewhere where the norm is to party on Thursday night because Friday night is the start of the Shabbat, and Saturday is the day of rest. It was easier to eat kosher than not, and I didn’t feel like I was teaching people about my heritage if I referred to anything I learned in Hebrew school.
We all shared an identity, a system of values that is old and traditional and ours. Who knew I was just an online application and an intense airport interrogation away from being stuck on a bus with 40 other Jews, all of us kvetching about the heat and sharing medicines from our personal pharmacies? I felt like I belonged, like I was with family. Who cares that there were packs of young soldiers with machine guns wandering about everywhere we went? There was a war going on, after all, and they were only protecting their country, right?
I was so caught up in enjoying this opportunity to be among “my people” that I almost forgot about my other people, my Arab side. An experience in Jerusalem provided me with a small reminder of just how unacceptable it is to be Arab in a Jewish state.
When our group arrived in the Holy City, an American man who had made Aliyah greeted us. He had a long beard and wore a kippah and was married to a conservative Jewish woman. Her hair and skin were covered and her hands rested on a stroller that carried their little Israeli citizen. I wasn’t listening to whatever lesson the man was trying to impart on us anyway, so I strolled to a nearby shop for an iced coffee. Every other time I had been to Israel, I always spoke in Arabic. So when I began to greet the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t have been much older than I, in the same tongue, she looked at me with hostility, like I was a terrorist.
“Ma?” She asked. “What?”
“An iced coffee, please?” I tried in English.
Her face broke out into a relieved smile. “Of course,” she responded in English. “5 shekel, please.”
I walked away feeling uneasy. It was odd to me that this woman would speak English over Arabic, considering that every Arab in Israel most likely speaks Hebrew, and that until 1948, possibly later, the primary language spoken in this region was Arabic. It was also odd to me just how many Israelis spoke English very well. I later learned that Jews begin English lessons in elementary school. Arabs in the same country don’t begin their English lessons until middle school.
For the moment, I let that encounter roll off my shoulders. Our Israeli soldiers had arrived to join us for the rest of our trip, a part of the trip called Mifgash, and I was eager to meet them.
I got close to one in particular; he reminded me of family. His name was Noam, he was from Be’er Sheva, and he looked like an Arab — dark skin, black facial hair, hazel eyes. He said his family had lived in Be’er Sheva for centuries, hence his Middle Eastern features. Noam and I became fast friends as he took it upon himself to be my personal translator and haggler at the colorful and humming Machane Yehuda Market. Noam introduced me to a Jerusalem mixed grill, made of chicken hearts, liver and spleen and stuffed lovingly in a pita with salad and other fixings. He led the way into the caves of the archeological site, the City of David, and sang Destiny’s Child in the dark to make me laugh. My mother would have nudged me in his direction and told me he was “a nice Jewish boy.”
Noam spoke perfect English, but only a little Arabic. He knew enough to say, “Step out of the car, please.” “Lift your shirt.” And, “Close the door.” Things a soldier would say to the enemy. He was also fairly religious for a young, Friends-watching Israeli. On Friday night, we held a Havdalah service, a ceremony that marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. Noam piously explained to me that the ceremony is meant to stimulate all five senses. We light a special havdalah candle to see the flame and feel its heat, we pass a cup of wine around to taste, we smell a bag of spices, and we hear the prayers.
On the day we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Noam and I cried like babies while we watched videos from survivors. We held hands and walked through the museum a little ways back from the rest of the group.
“I am happy to live in a world where Jews finally have a home,” he said.
I pretended to tie my shoe so that I could dislodge my hand from his grasp. I was thinking about my father, my grandmother, my family who call Israel home, yet are not Jewish. This was my first trip to Israel where I noticed a distinguished absence of Arabs, Muslim or Christian, from my prevailing Israeli landscape.
“Right, I’m grateful for that too,” I said. “Especially after World War II. But what about the Arabs who lived here peacefully with Jews and Christians for centuries before Great Britain carved up the land with little regard for cultural territories?”
He smiled at me like I was a child who had asked an adorable question with an obvious answer.
“The Arabs have their land,” said Noam. “God blessed Ishmael and his sons and promised them that their descendants would have a great nation. But Israel is for the Jews, the chosen people.”
“You’re quoting the Bible now?” I asked, incredulous.
“Of course,” he replied with a furrowed brow. “God has given us the State of Israel. It was prophesied that we would lose Israel for our sins, which we have, but we would have to fight for our land, which would one day be restored to us, which it has. Didn’t they teach you anything in Hebrew school?”
“Do you know what we call people who use the Bible as a basis for a social and political argument in my country?” I asked.
He looked at me, waiting.
“Idiots!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you have separation of church and state, or whatever?”
“No, we are a Jewish state.”
“And my family? All those who remain here, degraded to near second-class citizens?”
“They are not second class,” he said, defensively. “Arabs can practice whatever religion they want and live among us. But they will live under our law.”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t know quite how I felt about this conflict inside me. Noam seemed brain washed. Now that I thought about it, many of the Israelis we met seemed ignorantly one-sided. Not necessarily outright hateful, but definitely nationalistic, which history tells us is never a good quality for a population to have. I suppose you might need to feel that way if you were risking your life for your country and there was no way out of it. We had had many group discussions about the importance of the Israeli draft, something Arab citizens are exempt from, and the general consensus among our young Israelis was that they were proud to serve their country and protect their borders.
Noam and I walked silently back to the group, hands at our sides.
After Yad Vashem, our group leaders drove us to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. We paid our respects to the thousands of neat, gardened plots and rock-anointed graves that covered military casualties, some very recent. Anan led us over to a large patch of grass among the gravestones.
“Does anyone know why there is so much open space here?” he asked, arms stretched wide.
One of the girls in the group raised her hand and said, “To make room for more bodies.”
“Exactly,” said Anan. “Our war is far from over.”
That day, the Israelis left our group for their respective homes. Noam promised to keep in touch and try to visit me, which to his credit, he did, but I wasn’t as interested in being his friend. His views felt like an attack on a large part of me. I was proud to be a Jew, but I was also proud to be an Arab.
On the bus, Anan was on one of his spiels, so I was somewhere between staring out the window and dozing off. I perked up when he said, “Israel is for the Jews. It is a Jewish state.”
Again with this? I thought. Anan was sitting on his knees facing the seat behind him across the aisle from me. I don’t remember whom he was trying to brainwash.
“Anan,” I called. He looked at me from under his cowboy hat. “I’ve told you about my father before, haven’t I? He is a Christian Arab and he and his family have lived here in Israel, well, it was Palestine before, for generations. How do you fit Christians who call this land home into your Jewish state?”
“The Arabs don’t want to be a part of the State of Israel,” he said, throwing his hands into the air. “They cannot assimilate.”
“Why should they have to assimilate? They’ve lived here longer than all of the European Jews who immigrated here after the War.”
He started wagging his forefinger at me, smirked, and said, “Arabs are loyal to Arabs over the State of Israel. You ask your father where he lives, and he will say, ‘Israel.’ You ask him what he is, what his identity is, and he will say ‘I am an Arab.’”
A few days later, Birthright was over, and I had extended my stay in the country to visit my family in Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in lower Galilee, where you’re just as likely to be woken up by church bells as by the mosque’s call to prayer. My dad moved back home a few years ago, so this would be the first time I saw him. After a tearful reunion, we set off towards the Israel that I was used to.
Kafr Kanna was a lot smaller than I remembered it, and a lot uglier than the beautiful Jewish towns and cities we had visited during our tour. The streets were tight with sand-colored buildings and old cars. Everything from the shops and restaurants to the clothes people in the streets wore seemed like hand-me-downs. After spending time among the snow-white stone temples in Tzfat and the metropolitan haven of Tel Aviv, Kanna felt like kind of a dump. But this dump was home, and I was happy to be back with my family.
Later that night, over a meal of jaaj maashi, stuffed chicken, I asked my father, “Where do you live?”
“I live in Israel,” he said, with an indulgent smile.
“And what are you? What is your identity?”
“I am an Israeli citizen, habibti.”