I am proud of being Jewish, and the people I live with know this. Though it’s not Halachally required, my dorm room’s door frame sports a mezuzah (which is kosher, according to Chabad.com—I checked!). Friends from my residence hall know that I don’t make plans on Friday nights, because I go to Hillel for services. As I’ve established in a previous article, though it’s not fundamental to my Jewish identity, people I know nonetheless connect my constant habits of doing my Yiddish homework or listening to klezmer in the dorm lounge to my apparently strong sense of Jewishness—and I’m okay with that.
One thing I tend not to discuss very often, however, is Israel. Whether it’s because it’s such a controversial issue, and I shy away from conflict by nature; or because I’m incredibly confused about my own constantly-changing views on Israel; or because of that moment three or four years ago when I realized that “Zionism” is not necessarily synonymous with “Judaism, ” I can’t say. But whatever the reason, I decided not to think about it too much, opting instead to focus on subjects that seemed more directly relevant to me as a Diaspora Jew. Wrapped up in my potential reasons, I was shocked when, a few weeks ago, a non-Jewish housemate innocently asked, “Dani, are you planning on ever moving to Israel?”
Admittedly, the question came from a genuine place, motivated by my obvious passion for Judaism. Lacking a better answer, I managed to explain calmly, in as neutral and as apolitical a tone as I could, that the cultures of Israeli Jews and of Diaspora Jews are different, and Israeli culture isn’t what I immerse myself in on campus.
But I’ve continued to think about that short conversation. To my housemate, Israel and Jews are a natural association—and it was precisely this that shocked me. I think as a Jewish people, we are so used to our own internal debates and discussions about Israel that we either don’t notice or forget that the rest of the world links Jews and Judaism to Israel—for better or for worse.
In January, fellow UChicago student Eliora Katz wrote a compelling piece in The Chicago Maroon, The University of Chicago’s student newspaper, that I think speaks to this issue particularly well. She recalls a conversation with a non-Jewish friend with strongly critical views of Israel. The friend noted a Star of David sticker that Katz had decorated her phone case with for Hanukkah. Katz’s friend said that, given the Star’s association with Israel, she would have used a dreidel sticker instead. As Katz notes, the Star of David is a symbol with a long history, which Zionism only adopted in 1948. And yet, to a non-Jew, the two are seen as inherently linked. Similarly, Jewish spoken word poet and one of my personal role-models, Vanessa Hidary, addresses Israel in her 2010 poem “Never in my Lifetime”, saying “I represent you, you represent me, whether we like it or not,” hinting at this natural association in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Given our implied, if untrue, association to Israel as a people, then, I don’t think we can be apathetic, though I also think it would be unfair for us to take full responsibility for this fact. In part, the non-Jews ought to be careful with generalizations of Jews and Zionists. At the same time, however, I think that, since our association doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, we have to learn to care about Israel. This caring doesn’t have to mean adopting views as black-and-white,“pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel.” Though our stances must be nuanced, they must still be stances.
At the moment, I know only the basics about the conflict, which is not enough to have such a stance. This is why I plan to get educated, to try to figure things out to as much as I can, and hopefully, eventually, to form an opinion. Apathy is no longer an option.
Dani Plung is a student at the University of Chicago.