People back in America ask me all the time, why are you in Israel? Some of them are thrilled. Some of them are suspicious. Some of them are just curious. Almost none of them know the real Israel.
There’s a misconception that everyone in Israel is a Jew, or a Zionist, or a millennial with dreams of hi-tech, and that’s not true. I’m a glistening example. I’m Jewish, but I’m not observant, and I consider myself part of the Jewish community, but I’m not necessarily Zionist. I’m a social change activist. I support people, whether they’re Arabs, Palestinians, Eritreans, Jews, and so on and so forth. That might seem contradictory at a glance, but I assure you, it’s not.
Here’s my explanation, and if you’ve ever had conflicting thoughts about Israel, I think it’ll be worth the read.
The Unseen Side of Israel
I’m a Social Change Fellow for a multi-faith organization called Yahel; it wasn’t the Jewish community that drew me the most. Rather, I saw a need, and Yahel was my way to give back to the global community. It was an opportunity to learn about the world and its people, regardless of where they come from.
As an American, I grew up in a media bubble, sheltered from the wiles of the wider world, unexposed to things like the Eritrean and Sudanese refugee crises or the poverty plights of the Arabs who live in the Negev. Americans don't always understand the realities of the Middle East, because we don’t have to fight tooth-and-nail to exist. That being said, we’re definitely not the paradigm of the ‘peacemaker’ like we sometimes claim to be.
Israel’s in a hot seat now, too, but when it comes to Israel, everyone is talking about the wrong things.
Israel is more than a war-state or a media garden of headlines. It is a cultural crossroads, vibrant with people and history, and that is what makes it beautiful. Here, I’ve encountered values and opinions that don’t agree with my own — including Israeli ones — but I’ve since come to see their importance. I’ve learned how these different perspectives improve our understanding of the world as a whole, and how diversity makes for a richer existence.
Israel has it’s problems. It’s taken part in it’s share of duggeries. Yet, what nation can claim to be perfect? Not Israel. Definitely not America. Finland would be close if it weren’t for all the clouds.
Suffice it to say, there’s more to a country than a rap sheet, and I think it’s time to start a new conversation about Israel — not one of violence, or war, or geopolitics, but of people, and their triumphs, and their struggles.
A Conversation About People — What Do I Do Here?
I came to Israel to be a proponent of peace and positive change, and now, in a small neighborhood south of Tel Aviv — a place called Ramat Eliyahu — that’s exactly what I do.
Most mornings, I’m in an elementary school. The kids call me ‘Ey-tahn’, and the staff calls me an ‘assistant English instructor’, but that’s pretty far from the truth (especially because my Hebrew is laughable, and my Arabic is non-existent). Instead, I use English to create curiosity. I expose the students to culture in hopes it will foster compassion within them. I want to give them the confidence to explore new and different ideas, even though new and different is sometimes scary.
When evening comes, I grab my guitar and my laptop and head down the street to Volume Rishon, the community center’s youth music program — I do more than move drumsets and play poor acoustic guitar covers, though (I do that too). With my co-fellow Kayla and director Sasha, I’m responsible for our marketing materials, and some nights, if I’m not busy organizing events or designing flyers for the Instagram account, I’ll even sing for the bands in the studio. But, Volume is more than just a place for fun. It is a safe space for Ramat Eliyahu’s kids to escape into music, and I’m not just a volunteer there, but a mentor, a student, a friend, and a straight up rockstar. I’ve learned as much from the young musicians as they’ve learned from me.
Before I go on, I need to provide some background: Ramat Eliyahu is — for lack of a better term — the ‘forgotten’ part of Rishon Lezion. Over forty-percent of its residents are Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants brought here by Israel during 1980’s and 1990’s, and unfortunately, their transition into Israeli society hasn’t been easy. They are still learning how to live in a metropolitan environment, and with their attention more focused on surviving than anything else, they’ve started to lose their cultural connections. I, along with Bat-El and several other members of the community leadership, have been working hard to help rebuild these connections. I’ll have more to write about soon.
My Final Role — And Maybe My Most Important.
When all is said and done, I’m here for the Jewish community, but I’m also here for the Arabs and the Palestinians and the Eritreans and the Ethiopian immigrants — and anyone else who needs me. I’m here for people. I’ve seen the rough parts, and I’ve seen the beautiful ones, too. The media isn’t giving us the full picture.
This is my final role, and maybe my most important. I hope by sharing these stories, everyone will be able to see Israel’s other side, too!