Russian Jews have a different relationship to Israel than American Jews

One of my students said to me one day: “American Jews don’t have the same relationship with Israel as you Russian Jews.”

This young woman attended a prominent Jewish day school where she learned that Israel was conceived as a spiritual center for the Jewish people, a place where grandparents visit, bar and bat mitzvahs are celebrated, and distant relatives reside. When I asked him to tell me more about what exactly he had learned about Israel, he replied, “You know, that Golda was a woman and Herzl had a dream.” In that concise answer, he had summarized American Jewish education about Israel and the relationship of American Jews to it.

In his school, he learned that Israel is an outpost of liberalism in the Middle East. It is for this reason that the phrase “light upon the nations” resonates strongly among American Jews, and pro-Israel groups emphasize Israel’s diversity and democracy. Unfortunately, the pressure on Israel that it “does” has left most unprepared to defend itself against the relentless military and public relations war waged by the Palestinian Arabs, and to navigate the impossible moral dilemmas faced by an enemy that exploits the life and dignity of his own people. .

The relationship with an Israel that “does” rather than “is” has put this child, and much of American Jews, at a disadvantage. “It took me a while,” he admitted, “to figure things out.”

The romanticized version of “Golda” and “Herzl’s Dream,” she was hinting, finally gave way to the sad reality of hearing about Israel’s misdeeds: stealing land, discriminating against Palestinians, killing children. Painfully, in the “ago” relationship, Jews will always catch up with the headlines: “Settlers Raid Al-Aqsa”, “Forced Expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah”, “Israeli Violations of International Law in Occupied Palestinian Lands” , etc. .

Whether in support or increasingly through criticism, Israel is what connects the majority of American Jews to their Judaism. (credit: REUTERS)

I get text messages and calls from students asking to clarify anti-Israel headlines and accusations. Typically the student asks, “Is this true?” I’ve come to call it the ‘Is this true?’ Moment, a painful reminder that today’s Jewish youth don’t have the security and trust in their people to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But once I was his age and I also went to a Jewish day school. Why didn’t I have the moment of ‘Is this true? And in college, when I came across the “apartheid wall”, the false controls and the accusation of stealing land, I said to myself: “no, not my mother. Not my people. “I was not an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict. So where did my confidence and convictions come from to proclaim that this was hatred of Jews disguised as anti-Zionism? The answer is simple and will seem inappropriate academics: my parents and more specifically, my mother.

My mother’s favorite writer is the German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger. A Bavarian Jew, Feuchtwanger wrote epic novels based on Jewish history. One such novel, The Josephus Trilogy, details the Judean wars, which culminated in the massive occupation of Judea. Mother spoke fervently of how the Romans conquered the Jews and changed the name of the Palestinian land. “They changed the name to Palestine,” said the mother, “to stick it to the Jews! To erase his name from history! “

Feuchtwanger wasn’t just the favorite writer of my mother and her peers. In the Soviet Union, where religious practice was largely prohibited, reading Feuchtwanger was a rare access point to Jewish history and identity. For Soviet Jews, The Josephus Trilogy was a midrash. And so, as American Jews gathered in synagogues and practiced their faith freely, Russian-speaking Jews acquired historical knowledge centered on a strong sense of ethnicity and arrived prepared on the anti-Zionist battlefield.

One day, during the height of the Soviet Jewish movement, when his mother still lived there, he took a trolleybus. A Ukrainian woman looked at my mother, pursed her lips and said, “Why don’t you all go back to Palestine?” Because for the non-Jewish mind throughout history, Palestine was always Jewish land.

My mother told me about the time someone at work accused her of transforming the workplace into a “Zionist nest.” She concluded: “Just remember, when they say Zionist, they mean you.”

In 2000, the promise of the Oslo Accords culminated in the Camp David summit in which Arafat rejected the proposal for a Palestinian state. The American media caught fire and American Jewish institutions held talks and panels about what went wrong.

At my dinner table, our family discussed the creation of Jordan that was carved out of a British Mandate of Palestine promised to the Jews. My grandfather waved at the TV and said, “But there is already a two-state solution: Jordan!” And the mother, standing at a synagogue event on the “Two-State Solution: What went wrong”, speaking enthusiastically, not caring if her heavy accent prevented anyone from understanding: “But tell me, why the Palestinian cause never aired when Jordan occupied the same territory?

Little by little, I have recovered those moments that were trivial for me in those days. Together, these stories prepared me for what I encountered on campus. When I heard that the Jews stole the land, I heard my mother retell me about Feuchtwanger’s Judean wars; When I heard that “Palestine will be free”, I imagined my mother sitting on the trolley bus, with her hands crossed on her chest as the winter frost filtered through the windows, and the Ukrainian woman laughing: “Go back to your Palestine! “; When the university administrators told me this was anti-Zionism, not anti-Semitism, I heard the buzzing of the “Zionist nest” in my ears.

The cries of “Israeli apartheid” and “Zionism is racism” drew from my memory the troubled look on my mother’s face as she lamented: “The Americans may have won the Cold War, but the Soviets won on the ideological front.” . The Soviets fabricated anti-Zionism, he said, slandered Israel as a Nazi, an imperial outpost, and accused Zionism of racism.

All of this amounts to lessons in the form of intimate conversations with my family, who set out to convey to me the conditions of their lives, not just as Soviet Jews, but as citizens of a rotten regime. In effect, what his encounters with radical left-wing anti-Semitism did was prepare me for my encounter with him on campus.

So when my students bring me their “is this true?” Moment, I say to them, “Imagine someone just saw their mother beat up another woman and steal her purse. What do you say?” They laugh. I say, “Don’t laugh. Someone saw it and told me. “They reply,” My mother would not do that.

Imagine how much better it would be if Diaspora Jews started from this place. Without a doubt, the work is in education, but the most important thing is to transform the Jewish identity and the relationship that Jews have with each other, with Israel and with their shared destiny.

The writer was born in Ukraine and came to the United States with her family in 1989. She earned her Ph.D. in Russian Literature from UCLA. She is currently the director of education for Club Z, a rapidly growing Zionist youth movement.

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