Notes from the Road: Chapter 1
At 30,000 feet, I have a Will Shortz crossword puzzle and an inferiority complex (in addition to the one caused by the puzzle).
I am gone for the next ten days staffing a Taglit-Birthright Israel bus full of American college students as we cross the country. This is my third such trip, and I am spoiled. I have yet to have anything but a fantastic tour guide, someone smart, politically nuanced, in sync with the group, and an excellent listener. (I probably just jinxed myself. Do Jews believe in that sort of thing?)
I’m good at this. That is not where my inferiority complex lies. It’s in the part of my brain that was focused too much on a pair of young women behind us as we boarded the plane. They both wore jeans, boots and dark jackets, and carried small backpacks with blankets rolled up and tucked into the side compartments. They looked like college educated radicals, the sort you would find at Oberlin or Brown. It’s hard to say what exactly made me think this about them, but it was something that I recognized. I started imagining their trip-a sherut from Tel Aviv to Damascus Gate, and then a ride into a Palestinian village or refugee camp.
I have no proof of any of this, of course. The lights on the plane are off to woo us into sleep, and I don’t know where they might be sitting. If I did, I doubt I would talk to them, I’m not actually the sort of person to initiate conversation with strangers, it’s too much of a pressure cooker. Besides-and this is where I start to feel my complex-it’s totally obvious that I’m with Birthright. Even if they didn’t see me walking around with a clipboard and a name tag amid 40 students, I wouldn’t be able to hide it from them for very long. And then, what would they say? Maybe nothing, but it’s what I’d know they were thinking that would be the worst part. Right wing, Arab hater, Zionist (okay, yes, that’s true), anti peace, Islamophobic… I know this is what they’re thinking because I’ve thought it, maybe not about Birthright (because in my experience, when it’s done well, it’s amazing), but about the American Jewish community and about Israel.
The problem with the way we’ve shrunk down this debate, and the way I’m performing the dichotomy in my own crazy day dream, is that the complicated parts have been erased. Explaining that I’m on this trip because I believe I can show students what’s dysfuntional and beautiful and revolutionary and ridiculous about this country is an exhausting prospect , because its layers can so infrequently be exposed with integrity and articulateness.
Maybe it’s the air up here, but I can’t stop thinking about this one particular street corner in Jerusalem/my favorite cafe in Rehavia/the moment last summer when I stood waiting for the sherut to take me to the airport, and although I knew I had to leave, that I could never live in Israel, the thought of taking my feet off that ground made me heartsick, enough so that I quietly sobbed my way out of the city.
We all want to be seen, in one way or another. I need my whole self to be seen, especially the part that struggles, the one that needs to feel safe and the one that wonders at the expense of whom. I need to be able to talk about that feeling of not being able to stay and not being able to leave. It’s not just about the complexities of the political situation, it’s about the complexities of the people living those complexities. We’ve erased each other’s humanity, created boogeymen, and by that, I don’t just mean out of Israelis and Palestinians. I’m thinking about those two women somewhere on this night flight, about whom I am weaving tales.