Connecting Through Values: East Jerusalem and Silwan (Day three)
By Sarah Beth Alcabes, UC Berkeley ’14
Among my peers in J Street U, it is not uncommon to hear someone say that they have a complicated relationship with Israel. Or that they have a stressful or difficult relationship with Israel. These are all things I myself have said before. But something that I have felt on both of my trips to Israel is that I actually have no idea what my relationship with Israel is, or even if I have one.
The first time I was here six months ago with Birthright I attributed the feeling to the nature of the trip, to the fact that Birthright was not really the right program or context in which I should be seeing Israel given my prior knowledge and involvement. But I didn’t expect the same feeling of disconnect to creep up on me during this trip with J Street. I thought that seeing Israel from multiple angles and many narratives would ease this dreadful feeling. That through seeing Israel with a more truthful and open dialogue I would be able to grasp onto a deeper connection, that I’d be able to actually feel the love for Israel that I’ve been conditioned to feel based on 20 years of Jewish education.
During my first trip to Israel when I didn’t feel this it made me sad, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t really “Jewish” enough to find this connection. But it also made me feel a rising sense of panic. Because if I did not feel this love, if my criticisms and challenges of Israel were not coming from a place of love, what right do I have to make them? Why am I even bothering to make them, or engage in this conflict at all?
When I found myself feeling all of this again, just intensified into fury and sadness, after the first two days of the trip with J Street, I began to wonder why was I here again. Why have I invested so much time and energy into a place that is so difficult for me to find a connection to?
Today we took a tour of the City of David, an archaeological site located in the middle of a Palestinian city Silwan in East Jerusalem. The site is run by Elad, an organization that also works to move Jewish families into the Palestinian neighborhood in which the City of David is located, Silwan. Elad funds legal cases and home purchases that lead to the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Silwan, and they then support the movement of Jews into these homes. For this reason, many accuse the City of David — one of Israel’s most visited tourist sites — of being run by a settler organization.
Our guide, a graduate student from the Hebrew University, focused pretty exclusively on the archeology of the site. He described the scholarly debates surrounding the efforts to prove whether what we were looking at was indeed the ancient home of King David. In a speech at the end, however, he concluded with a rousing call to claim this place as our own. “This is ours, it is yours,” he told our group. “It belongs to the Jewish people and it is ours to do with it what we…can.” It seemed that he almost said “want” instead of can, but caught himself at the last second.
Although I know his intentions behind saying this, what he wanted us to take away from it, there is a way I think to take from this reinvigorated energy towards our work as J Street U. The City of David is built in a Palestinian neighborhood. It is, of course, their right to make of their community what they can. Yet the question is one I must also pose to myself: what can I do for the people who live here, the Jews and Palestinians of all of Jerusalem? What I can do to address what is happening here: the living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, the fear that Israelis in the South must live with, the ugly barriers placed through people’s neighborhoods and homes preventing them from not only rights like education and health care, but basic dignity and freedom of movement, and a blatant lack of resources for huge segments of the population?
This is all done in the name of a Jewish state, in the name of the Jewish people. As a Jew I can do everything in my power to fix those things. I can implement the Jewish social justice values I have been taught when it comes to my relationship with the Jewish state. Because these values are what connect me to being Jewish; they are, for me, what makes me Jewish. And I not only have the right to do what I can, I have the duty. Because this is the Jewish state, and I am a Jew.
So though I am nowhere close to figuring out what exactly my draw to this conflict is, or how to articulate what my relationship to Israel is, I can say without a doubt that I know how I feel about being Jewish, and about the Jewish people. I feel love and pride and responsibility. So that is why I am in this country again: to grapple and learn and cry and learn how I can translate my feelings of anger and accountability into ones of love and connection and action.