I’ve never really felt that Jewish, but obviously the whole point of the trip was to change my mind. Only a few minutes after safely and easily making it past Israel’s notorious border security, meeting our guide, collecting our free cell phones, and getting on the bus, we were informed that, whether we had seen it or not, there was a sign in the airport that was meant for us. In English it says simply, “Welcome to Israel.” Then, in Hebrew (because all Jews can read Hebrew, right?) it also says, “Welcome home.” This explanation marked the beginning of the ten-day spiel that would seek to convince us that Israel was our one true home and that all Jews not living there were “Diaspora Jews.” Naturally, I had a problem with this.
“Diaspora” is a word I first came into contact with as a way of describing a type of literature within the politically correct humanities departments of American universities. In Greek, the word “Diaspora” is literally a “scattering.” This assumes that a large number of people belonging to a specific race or culture were dispersed or displaced across the world, away from that cultural or racial center, often by force. There is an African Diaspora, a West Indian Diaspora, a Southeast Asian Diaspora, but is there really a Jewish Diaspora? The idea that we are all “Diaspora Jews” struck me as strange. Up until May 14, 1948, there was no Jewish homeland, although there were plenty of Jews. The idea that once Israel was declared a Jewish state, all of a sudden, millions of Jews in the world were given the label “Diaspora” simply because they did not happen to be there, strikes me as kind of insulting. How can they be called “Diaspora” when they never left the land that proclaims itself their center, but rather homes across the world—places their families had inhabited for decades or even centuries? For me, the surest sign that Jews living outside Israel are not merely “Diaspora Jews” is this: Jews do not need Israel to keep their Jewish traditions—all those holidays and rituals and stories and bits and pieces of shared history—all that Judaism means to them—alive, because those traditions are not rooted in one specific place, but in two-thousand years of development in hundreds of different places.
Perhaps I missed something, but I never felt that special connection to Israel that was so meticulously—and in some cases, beautifully—articulated for us by our trip leaders. They painted a picture of Israel as a country with nearly 6 million open arms inviting us (the population is actually 7.5 million—think about it), but they couldn’t paint a picture so rosy that it would gloss over the metal detectors and security guards at the entrance to every shopping center and indoor public space, the soldiers barely past puberty slinging machine guns over their shoulders while they licked ice cream cones, or the way that most of the country was laced with barb-wire and looked like a military zone. This was a place that had known plenty of suffering and would know plenty more, and the worst part about it was the young people, my age or my sister’s, brainwashed by one ideology or another, who ended up dying in one of so many battles, wars, or terrorist attacks. I remember standing with the group in the military cemetery at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, trying to hold back tears, crying silently, not because so many teenagers had died bravely for such a worthy and important cause, but because they had been made to believe it was one. Time and again, as I listened to stories of the country’s birth and growth pains and its long and illustrious history, as, in spite of myself, I felt momentary pride in what we were told repeatedly, that it was “an extraordinary miracle” we were all even here, all I could think was that Israel felt more like a punishment than a reward. In other words, “we went through all of that…for this?” And even more frighteningly, “is this really it?”
The narrative Israel builds for itself is one that undoubtedly climaxes in the Shoah, the “catastrophe” to the Jewish people that was the Holocaust, and winds its way from that melodramatic turning point back down to a peaceful country of farmers, settlers, and intellectual nation-builders. But is the third act really the last act? Everyone in Israel is so sure, perhaps because this is the only way they keep going within a geographical climate of such violent opposition to them. But what if this is just one more step in a continuing narrative that will see the Jewish people leaving once again? And—dare I say it—would that really be the worst thing in the world for us? Perhaps I will be branded a self-hating Jew for even suggesting it, but to me, the promised land is and always will be America—specifically New York and California—where Jews have become so successful in the fields of entertainment, banking, art, literature, journalism, and just about any other industry that keeps the world running, that when someone suggests we are “taking over the world,” it sounds laughable because it is so wonderfully true. People will argue that the Jews “need Israel” to come home to when the rest of the world turns against them, but to me, America feels a lot safer than Israel ever could.
If you are interested in a comprehensive and critical first-hand account of the Birthright experience beyond what I have written here, please read Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. I’ve never been one for graphic novels (weren’t we supposed to be embarrassed to read picture books past the third grade?) but I picked up a copy in Ben-Gurion airport in an effort to stave off exhaustion and boredom. I found myself speeding through it over the next few hours, truly astonished by how closely it mirrored my own experience.