Culture, Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

Interfaith and Israel

This is a guestpost by Liya Rechtman.
My family’s Passover Seder this year marked two firsts for my boyfriend: his first time meeting my dad and his first time eating homemade gefilte fish. As we read the haggadah around the table, I felt myself tensing up: ‘oh no, what if he gets that passage about Hillel and Shamai and he can’t pronounce the weird Hebrew town names?’ and ‘Worse! What if he winds up with “Tell me morano, my brother” and he has no idea what it’s about?’ When a reading did finally fall on him, and my boyfriend started on with “I am a Jew because…” I sort of giggled, loudly. My mom, tactful as always, told him that perhaps they would let someone else read the passage and come back to him. The first minor, awkward, interfaith hurdle had been managed gracefully by all parties involved.
The Seder moved on that night, and for several months to come the disparity between my Jewish tradition and his ex-Muslim atheism were significant parts of our identity, but not prohibitively so in the context of our relationship. Our faith/non-faith perspectives consistently yielded to thoughtful, extended discussion and debate about God, materialism, and meaning, among other things. That is, until three boys were declared dead in Israel and I stayed up all night crying.
I had begun to pay attention to the news again in Israel after a year-plus-long hiatus when Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah were first captured in Gush Etzion. I imagined my oldest cousin, only a year younger than them and growing up in a small kibbutz near Jerusalem, sharing their fate or one of the kids I knew from NFTY or study abroad whispering that same “I was kidnapped” to an emergency hotline. I felt, as I always feel when disaster strikes in Israel, that while I was not physically there in body, every fiber of my being was wrapped up with the suffering and fear of my Jewish people abroad. These were not feelings that my boyfriend understood.
As the war this summer began to heat up, he and I promised to each other that we would try not to bring it up too much when we were together. He did not share my connection to the Jewish people, to my family, or to the state of Israel. In fact, as the fighting wore on and Israel began their ground invasion of the West Bank and Gaza, he began posting on Facebook comments critical of Israel. This upset me, but I didn’t want to rock the boat. We didn’t talk about it.
One night, as we sat in bed, each plugged into our computers, reading and unwinding from a day of work, I overheard John Stewart’s voice: “both sides are engaging in aerial bombardment, but one side appears to be… bomb-better at it…” (clip here).
I tensed and made a joke, but I didn’t give voice to the full range of my feelings. What was I so afraid of? What would happen if I told him how I was feeling or what I was thinking about re: the Israel-Palestine conflict? Here were the things I was sure of: I love my boyfriend and I know trust and mutual respect to be the basis of our relationship; I identify as Israeli-American and I love and respect my family still in Israel; I have read my Israeli and Jewish history and I want Israel to exist; I oppose human suffering and military violence because of my Jewish and human values. And yet I sat still and silent, stewing in my own angst and feeling ripped apart as the headlines continued to scroll, as night after night passed in our shared bed, and as I started to put off Shabbat morning calls home to my American and Israeli family.
As with many, many conflicts, the issue that led us to all-out war was not exactly the central focus of my internal turmoil. He posted a link on Facebook, no stronger than his previous commentary, and I snapped. Then I did what had been for me unthinkable: I engaged in a Facebook comment war with my boyfriend. I didn’t wait to talk to him calmly when we both came home from work, I didn’t give him or our relationship the benefit of real-time communication; I got fired up, pissed off, and I went at him.
Here was a non-Jew and a non-believer whom I respected and trusted. I couldn’t simply ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ him and ignore the conversation. I couldn’t escape into a Jews-only space and tell him that he simply didn’t understand. This wasn’t a stranger, this wasn’t just a friend from class, this was the boyfriend who had driven with me for four hours and back first thing in the morning to be at my Passover Seder, who had laughed when he read “I am a Jew because” and squeezed my hand under the table.
When the air finally cleared enough for us to see each other again, I realized that I didn’t totally disagree with him. I had to engage. And once I was there, talking to him, it became clear to me that we didn’t fundamentally disagree. While I love Israel and my family there, I am also deeply disturbed by the violence on both sides.
Ha’aretz writer Ari Shavit talks about the problem as an issue dating back to even the earliest kibbutzim, like kibbutz Hulda. In his book My Promised Land, Shavit writes that the position to the kibbutzniks is clear – their “intentions were not malevolent” and they sought only “to form an intimate community” of Jews “and plant in the soil of Hulda a new beginning of harmony and justice and peace.” However, he writes of the Arab villagers of Hulda: “Their side is clear too. Could they not have protested our penetration into their valley?” Shavit articulates the problem I struggle with the most: the seeming historical inevitability of the Israel-Palestine conflict that can only be understood to its full, tragic extent when considered in light of the logic and human suffering on both sides. Previously, I had recognized the first half of Shavit’s argument alone. It was only through talking to my boyfriend that I realized I agreed with the latter position.
My boyfriend isn’t going to understand why religion is important to me and I’m not going to understand how it isn’t important to him. He is never going to feel the way I feel about Israel. That said, our stances on suffering and violence are the same.
For his part, reaching across the divide that had grown between us was less a political realization and more an exercise in empathy. While he had been posting on Facebook and talking with his friends, I had been struggling with the razor-thin balancing act of my own, independent political views, and trying to be a supportive member of my family. I am someone he loves and people I love are in danger in Israel. The relationship that we hold so dear and the conversations it fosters have to be based in an acknowledgement of my reality.
This has been a difficult summer for a lot of people. While my friends across the political spectrum were out on the streets with IfNotNow, protesting the war in Tel Aviv, or struggling with the rising tide of anti-Semitism at the ADL, my battles were much closer to home and happened mostly in the hours between dinner and sleep.
After our fight, we did not post a picture of us kissing with the #arabsandjewsrefusetobeenemies tag; there was no big celebration of our micro-reconciliation. My boyfriend and I are not representative of the conflict – I am not all Jews and he is not all non-Jews, or all Arabs.
As I write this at the end of September, I am looking towards Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I wish I could say that I had found some answer, key, or conclusion, a right way to have these conversations and manage the complexity of interfaith interaction, friendship, and love in the midst of conflict. I haven’t, but at least for the two of us, empathy and open dialogue continue to be our vital tools to keeping the anguish and uncertainty at bay.

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