April 14, 2011
Born to a wealthy family in Babylonian exile, Rabbi Hillel made the decision to come alone to Jerusalem at the age of 40, where he worked as a woodcutter so that he could study Torah. He is well known for many contributions to the Jewish faith, but perhaps most commonly for the saying "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" This diatribe applies itself well to all facets of Jewish life, but at this particular phase in mine, I relate it most strongly to Israel, and to how Jews in the diaspora find connection to the Jewish State.
Lifted directly from a text entitled “America: The Jewish Experience,” the question I asked my students recently was this: “Some people feel that the only true way to express their devotion to Israel, is to live there. Other people feel that the best way to show their love for Israel is to donate money to the country. Discuss your feelings about these ideas.” I asked my students whether or not they knew what it meant to be a Zionist, to which I received a chorus of “no’s”. I explained that Zionists believe it is important for a Jewish Nation to exist, whether or not it is there home. All of the students quickly agreed that they were Zionists, hardly a difficult crowd to win over; unlike many American Jews today. When I asked if any of them thought they might someday live in the Jewish State, the response was just as definite, as not a single hand rose. This is hardly out of character for modern American Jewry, and to a large extent, a reasonable healthy phenomenon. Anthropologists can breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge that every American Jew does not aspire to make themselves a home in Israel, a nation already in the grip of space constraints, over-population and particularly in the densely populated Dan region, a water shortage.'
The oft made argument is that for Jews who want to show their support for the state of Israel, the best way to do that is from afar, whether it be through donations, letters to their State representatives, or Israeli advocacy, called Hasbara, in Hebrew. I myself am one of many graduates from that Hasbara “movement”, an alumnus of several leadership trips, where groups of college students are brought to Israel (mostly on the dollar of well-off but distanced Diaspora Jews), taught to represent the “Israeli cause,” and then dispersed back to American College campuses. Once home, we were expected to present ourselves as emissaries for the State of Israel, and to dispel any negative attention directed towards it on our campus. For donors looking to see results of their contribution, I was almost undoubtedly a poor choice as a recipient of funds…in 2006, my alma mater was named second most apathetic University in the Nation by the Princeton Review. The simple notion of anti-Israel sentiment would have been laughable on my campus. Making a decision about where to source the falafel for Shabbat dinners at Hillel represented the most heated Middle Eastern focused discussion I experienced at university.
Worldwide media makes it impossible to ignore the difficulties of life in the Middle East, yet it is more than the prospect of affordable healthcare drawing me there. I am relocating to Israel this summer, and responses to my intentions vary widely. There are those who are as excited about my upcoming adventure as I am, the family and friends from whom it will be extremely difficult to separate, and my fellow Israeli advocates, some of whom have told me “they can do more for Israel here”. While doing everything possible to ensure support of Israel in every locale is important, I came to a point in time a time in my life where the question became not “how can I ensure Israel’s future?” but “What can I do for my future, and how will Israel be a part of that?” When I asked myself that question, my conclusion was that I needed to be a part of the Jewish States story as it moves forward, and not simply a listed name on the sponsor pages, as important as that support is to her continuation.
The Zionist’s dilemma, as I posed it to my students, has morphed, and is no longer necessarily “What can I do for Israel,” but “What can Israel do for me”, an expectation born out of the generous support it has long received from the Diaspora community. Jews outside of Israel need to know that they will receive a return on their investment, and that the future of Israel does and will have an impact on their own lives.
My connection to Israel has helped to mold me into the person I am as both a Jew and a human being, and those are gifts that I can only hope to repay over time. I intend to continue giving back to the Jewish State as a citizen, not simply in contributions to its economy, but also as a voice in her future. I will begin a Master’s Degree in Israeli Politics and Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the fall, and hope to segue that into helping guarantee a future for my new home, something important to American Jews, and undeniably essential to Israelis. Being able to answer the question of “What can I do for Israel” with “make her my future, and my future hers” is Hasbara as it is closest to my heart, and I truly believe that it will allow me an even greater appreciation of all Israel’s supporters on the ground outside of her borders.
Claire Rosenberg is a staff writer for the New Vilna Review. She also writes for Examiner.com as the Hartford Jewish Examiner, teaches, does yoga, runs the occasional 5k, and has a Vegetarian food blog, www.bokchoybohemia.com. As of August 2011, she will be making her home in Jerusalem, Israel, where she will begin studying towards her Masters in Israeli Politics and Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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