I sat down for dinner the other night with Irle, a veteran American Jewish progressive activist who has spent much of his life shuttling back and forth between the US and Israel. He wanted to take some time to reflect on how my fellowship has been going so far, and in his words, “to be inspired.”
Of course I insisted on my favorite restaurant in Jerusalem, Tmol Shilshom. Named after famed Israeli poet S.Y. Agnon’s novel, it is both a restaurant and cultural hub, covered floor to ceiling in books of all genres and host to regular lectures and poetry readings. As we both savored our sweet potato gnocchi, a strange, surprising sentence suddenly popped out of my mouth:
“The act of building community is, in essence, a political act.”
This gentle, friendly man, maybe a bit older than my parents, put his fork down.
“You should really write this stuff up. I mean, really.”
I told myself before I came to Israel this year that, this time, I would have to feel better. That in order to feel safe, I would have to find my community. I’ve now been here for about five months, and imperceptibly, I suddenly find myself feeling protected. In a new twist of events, I am no longer Leanne facing her insecurities and fears alone. I am Leanne: loved, nurtured and protected.
I started to realize my newfound sense of security gradually, and then all of a sudden. At first, it was noticing myself becoming less worried about articulating my thoughts and beliefs to others, even strangers.
“Oh, you’re from New York! Are you planning on making Aliyah?”
“I would feel guilty using that privilege knowing that thousands of Palestinians living in Jerusalem can’t even obtain residency status, much less get citizenship. Not to mention the Palestinian refugees who don’t even have the option of making Aliyah.”
Just like that. I noticed my responses becoming more natural, less fraught…
And then I noticed myself becoming more confident walking alone to Shabbat services at my favorite synagogue, knowing that I would inevitably run into strangers-turned-friends. It was about three weeks ago that I marveled at my strange sense of rootedness in this place. As I cheerfully walked from my neighborhood in Jerusalem to the German Colony, my mind wandered to the people who might be there. Sure enough, from Hadar alumni to Pardes students to Women of the Wall activists, I felt surrounded by easy familiarity. When did Jerusalem start to feel like my college campus?
And then I noticed myself becoming less vulnerable to attack. I have begun to trust myself, to have faith in my own integrity and thinking, and to begin to question others rather than automatically questioning myself. Last week, I was directly confronted with all of the classic critiques that I’ve been showered with over the past few years of my life:
What occupation? How can you occupy your own land?
You are collaborating with the enemy.
You have come all the way from the United States just to do damage to this place.
You don’t care about the blood of IDF soldiers or Jewish victims of terror.
You get your information from lying media sources.
You are just a tourist and who doesn’t know anything about this place because you didn’t grow up here.
When listed as a series of sanitized bullet points, these critiques might sound stale and innocuous. But when packed into a punch and articulated by a human being directly against you, they can really hurt. I remember two years ago, when confronted in person with all of these accusations at once, I burst into tears and considered leaving Israel forever. But last week, when it happened again, I was strangely unruffled. Yes, my heart pounded a bit heavy. But in a deep sense, I was able to recognize the hurt and trauma beneath the attack, as well as the enormous gap of ignorance. Perhaps for the first time, my anxiety was not about self-doubt. It was about the best way to respond with empathy and kindness, but still out of a deep sense of stability and confidence in my own position. I am not invulnerable, but I have begun to grow a durable shell that is really understanding that is really confidence that is really faith.
It’s true, this growing sense of security is related to the accumulation of life experience and the natural trajectory of self-awareness that comes with growing up. But is also has a lot to do with the building of community.
When I first arrived in Israel, I immediately inserted myself into three communities: the NIF-Shatil Social Justice Fellowship cohort, the staff at Ir Amim, and the anti-occupation collective All That’s Left. It was an act of preemptive self-preservation; I knew that if I were to really come back here, I would need to feel nurtured in order to survive. The fellowship was my automatic avenue; the ATL collective was my choice.
It took time to get to know people. Ir Amim was the quickest; the entire staff was so incredibly warm and welcoming from the first day. In truth, just having the privilege to be surrounded by each of the individual staff members of Ir Amim for an entire year is one of the most amazing opportunities I have ever been afforded. They inspire me every day. In short, Ir Amim provided me with a community of activists who are on the same political wavelength and work towards the same goals. And they truly lead by example. At Ir Amim, I will always have a someone to laugh with, cry with, meditate with, and celebrate with. And the staff that enjoys chocolate as much as I do.
And then the fellows; I was inspired by each and every one of them from the start, but developing closer relationships took more time because we see each other less often than we see the staff at our respective placements. But over the past few months, I have come to savor the moments we have together, the way that they can make me laugh unlike anyone else in this country, and the words of wisdom that flow seamlessly into our easy conversations. Not to mention that these are the people who I can hug in exhaustion at 11:27 at night, or host for sleepovers, or call just to ask for an impromptu coffee date. I remember last week, I was waiting with a friend for a group of the fellows to arrive at a vigil. When I saw a few them walking toward us, my face completely lit up. My friend turned to me and remarked,
“Wow, you seem really happy to see these people!”
I paused for a moment.
“Well, in Israel a friendly familiar face means a lot more than it does back at home. It really does make me this happy to see them, every time.”
The fellows are the people here closest to my own experience. Not to mention that I have had the added perk of being the youngest. I have gotten to learn from everyone else’s life experiences and look to them as role models as I make my way through my own first year out of college…
And then there’s All That’s Left, a collective unequivocally committed to ending the occupation and focused on building the Diaspora angle of resistance. It began as a group of Diaspora Jews living in Israel (permanently or not) working together on direct actions & online media campaigns against the occupation. As alumni of ATL have returned to various locales in the Diaspora, satellite groups have popped up around the world with the same mission. At first, I was skeptical. The group contains one-staters and two-staters, BDS proponents and opponents, Zionists and non-Zionists. I thought, what can an activist group do with no coherent vision for the future?
Well, as it turns out, lots of things. But I’m going to focus on the building of community.
A few weeks ago, I felt attacked and afraid. Without giving too much detail, I found that I was able to call friends, new and old, even immediately, even late at night. All were ATL activists and NIF-Shatil fellows. I found comfort and support, and the confidence one can find only in the knowledge that you are a part of a community, that there are people who will put themselves on the line to protect you. I found that news of my situation spread quickly. I woke up to text messages with encouragement and strategies for the next day. I woke up with the affirmation that I was loved and cared for.
And for that reason, I felt safe in continuing to do the work that I do.
And then last week. All That’s Left held a candle-lit vigil in memory of the Baruch Goldstein massacre and subsequent years of devastating occupation in Hebron. During the planning stages, detailed e-mails kept me apprised of strategies and tactics. Long bus rides to and from Tel-Aviv after long days at work were made worth it when I could curl up in my bare feet and write press releases with newfound friends and soul mates. And the silent vigil itself held more meaning than I could articulate in that moment, and I was glad to stand silently with my candle and poster in hand. To think. To contemplate the meaning of standing with tens of other Diaspora Jews who have learned and loved in similar spaces, who have all found our way to Israel, who are all wrestling together with what it means to keep our humanity in this dizzying place. To look to my friends, to know that many of them, like me, grew up surrounded by young boys in colorful kippahs, to know that we have all stared the monster in the eyes, to know that we have all cried in our broken dreams. To know that we face hatred, misunderstanding, and rejection from the people to whom we were born. To know that we have each other, to know that it only takes us to begin to build, to know that at least in the end we will always be able to hold one another in our fear and shame and flickers of hope. The All That’s Left vigil held more for me than just any other protest for any other issue that I hold dear. It was my life surrounded by concentric circles of variations on Diaspora Jewish life, laced with the differences I have come to embrace and love. And the very act of building loving community is political in essence.
I remember coming across a quote by Audre Lorde, an indescribably inspirational black feminist queer activist and writer. She said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” And I thought to myself, yes. There are millions, billions of people in this world trying to survive in political, economic, and social systems that were not built for them. In systems that, in essence, were built explicitly to exclude them. And so just as deep as loud political activism and community organizing, self-care is an act of political warfare. Self-care says: I am going to survive, and love myself, even as you seek to destroy me in your hatred.
But as I have come to discover, the building of community is an act of political warfare, too. And I don’t mean community organizing or strategic thinking or tactical maneuvers (although all of that is important). I mean the building of a nourishing community for people to find a sense of love and security in a system that seeks to make them feel unloved and insecure. Yes, I am an upper middle class white Ashkenazi Jew living in Israel. I am privileged beyond comprehension. But I am also an outspoken critic of ethnic privilege and anti-occupation activist. In many ways, I pose a greater threat to the system here than any Palestinian or non-Jewish international activist. I am a Jew who says no to the existing narrative, which was supposedly meant for me. And in that way, I am automatically unwanted by the reigning authorities of the Israeli government and mainstream Israeli society, which comprise the system that controls this place.
But I have insisted on finding a nurturing community here. And there is one! In our attempt to find happiness and love in the midst of our overwhelming sense of isolation and rejection in the belly of systematic oppression, All That’s Left and the interconnected web of the Israeli Left has created a radical community in and of itself. In providing a space for left-wing activists to feel protected and understood, this community has allowed us to take care of our souls. And when we take care of ourselves, we are saying: we will love ourselves despite the hatred we encounter. That in itself is an amazing feat of resistance. But then this self-love and sense of security allows us to wake up the next morning and carry on.
As we finished our meal, I thanked Irle for his validation and support. This past week, I was fortunate enough to have three wonderful visits from the United States: one from my college thesis advisor, one from a woman who has spent her long life supporting Israeli civil society and now J Street, and one from Irle. All encouraged me in my work, reminding me that I was part of a long tradition of social justice activists in the Jewish community and in the land of Israel. I hadn’t realized how sorely I needed to hear that, not from my peers, but from my elders. They reminded me that I am not only part of a young, spatially-bound community, but also an intergenerational, geographically diverse one. Irle pointed out the Jewish activists of Brit Shalom, stretching all the way back to the Mandate Period. “This isn’t new,” he said. “You’re just a part of the tradition.”
I think my favorite quote of the night was Irle’s retelling of his own experience growing up and engaging in left-wing activism related to Israel/Palestine. “You come to learn that if you’re feeling alone, you’re actually doing something right. It’s all a part of the process. Yes, you are feeling pain. But it’s a good pain.”
Looks like I’m the one who left dinner feeling inspired.