Demystifying Israel

Chesney Ovsiowitz

If you have never been to Israel, this is for you. If you have, this is for you too. If you have a flat in Tel Aviv, cousins in Jerusalem, and grandparents in Beit-Shemesh, this is for you. If you have never met a Jew before, this is for you.

I have been to Israel many times, and have been in Israel for a lot of time. As the product of a Jewish secondary school I was taught to love the Jewish homeland unconditionally, to turn towards Jerusalem when I pray, and to ask G-d for peace in the world. I felt as though I understood Israel, its culture, its people, its language; I had experienced it. Zionism was intellectually ingrained within me.

Yet when I went to Jerusalem for a month this summer, these certainties were violently undone. I wrestled between the most natural part of me, my Jewishness, and something that now felt artificial, Zionism. None of the narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mainstream media were able to help me reconcile these two sides to myself. And then I met a Palestinian of my age, and where I once saw culture, people, language, I saw cultures, peoples, and languages, and ‘Israel’ as a topic felt foreign.

Unlike many, I have never claimed to be an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of politics. Debating policies, scandals, exclusion zones, budgets, and death tolls whilst engineering cults of personality in order to win elections does not appear to me as an effective way of catering to the needs of individuals affected by the headlines. By no means is politics ineffective, but it is sometimes easy to feel that it is both a means and its own end; it can override and cloud the truths behind the issues.

Yet when I met the girl from East Jerusalem, politics became a plain and simple background upon which humans were messily scribbled.

She asked me to order a coffee for her before she showed me around the Arab Quarter of the Old City. “Don’t you speak Hebrew?” I retorted with careful we’ve-just-met sassiness. She pulled her face and laughed: “Ew no”. In that moment I felt incredibly naive: I couldn’t understand how someone who lived the city where I’d been living, where I’d been speaking Hebrew, could be so out of touch with what I had experienced. Yet as we walked east and spoke and took in the sights of a familiar city through new eyes, it started making sense. She showed me a side of Israel that I had never seen before outside of carefully-planned, executed, and biased educational trips.

As Ramadan came to a close for the day, the streets around the Damascus gate flooded with people buying food from the vendor stalls. The image didn’t fit into what I’d been taught to expect. Looking at West Jerusalem from the outside for the first time, from the borders of its Eastern neighbour, it began to seem grotesque, with its modern architecture and gaudy Mamilla mall.

“That’s not my country, why would I learn its language?” My first instinct was to try to talk to her about politics and the two-state solution, about government and democracy — even though these are self-professed weak-points of mine — to somehow try to fit her into readymade paradigms and frames of reference. She didn’t want to talk about politics, but she did want to tell me that she was upset, and angry, and hopeful.

We talk about perspective as if Israel is just a series of essays, different news stations, or different theories. It seems obvious enough, but perspective is above all else human. My short and by no means extreme or unique experience of perspective felt like a coming of age. This new friend of mine destabilised my outlook on Israel, and left me feeling confused. Maybe I don’t like this place? Does this make me a liberal Zionist, or an anti-Zionist, or what? Am I ‘allowed’ to call myself anti-Zionist? What would my parents say? The dismantling of my Jewish education on Israel that took place during my month in Jerusalem gave me the strength to say ‘I don’t know’. When the only voices that can be heard around you are screaming either yes or no, it is hard to side with either (or both). Extreme opinions are always easier to defend than nuance or confusion.