I've lived my Jewish life in two Christian countries -- one whose claims of secularism do little to mask religious fervor, and another whose professed religious identity hardly translates to church attendance. Growing up in a mixed-faith New York family, practicing Reform Judaism, my love for Israel was always married to my dedication to peace and the two-state solution. Every holiday season reminded me that I was different, that I was a minority, and I learned to swallow the incredulous claims that our society was not Christian, but Judeo-Christian, with an empty smile. The last five years I've spent living in the United Kingdom, however, have opened my eyes to just how enmeshed acceptance and respect of Jewish culture and Israel is, at least in the America that I know.
Attending Scotland's premier university, I was confronted with criticism of Israel that my American education taught me to be at odds with "Western values." It forced me to read more widely, to question what before I had quite blindly accepted. I noticed the biases in various media outlets, the powerful message hidden beneath seemingly neutral four-word titles. I was always careful to remain level-headed, not to resort to the dismissively ignorant responses of friends who had never been to Israel or the Palestinian Territories (or Palestine, as Europeans call it), who had never met an Israeli or a Palestinian and had never bothered to try and understand the unending complexities of the situation.
Outside of America, I was exposed to a wide array of opinions on Israel. My support was increasingly tempered by humanitarian concerns. My stomach clenched as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government authorized more and more settlements in the West Bank, when his haughty treatment of President Obama was flashed on television screens around the world. I can't stand the fanaticism that blinds Jews to the plight of their Arab neighbors. I support the complete dismantling of unannexed Jewish settlements past the Green Line, the forcible eviction of Israeli Jews if necessary, mirroring former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Gaza. As the dominant power in the region, Israel has the burden of moral exactitude -- she must sacrifice and suffer in the short term, in order for there to be any hope of prosperity and peace in the long. Yet upon hearing that Netanyahu had suspended peace talks with the Palestinians following the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas, I found myself nodding along to a man whose political views I am so largely at odds with.
I couldn't help but agree with Netanyahu, as he sat calmly explaining the unique Israeli predicament to the BBC, because I understand where he's coming from. I'm not particularly religious. My family is a delightful mix of Jewish and Christian traditions and celebrations, I've never felt the urge to seek a Jewish romantic partner, but I know what it's like to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world. It's been more pronounced in Europe than in America -- here I've found myself a novelty, sometimes even fetishized.
For those who fit in without having to think, it's impossible to understand what Israel means. I've had British friends passionately refuse to believe that the United Kingdom is Christian. The lack of post on Sundays, the Queen's Christmas Address and the impossibility of finding Chanukah candles in St Andrews aren't noticeable to them, but to me they are reminders. They are reminders that this Jewish boy from Brooklyn is not totally at home, no matter how much I may look like my neighbors.
Reading about the Holocaust, it doesn't take much effort to imagine it was my mother screaming as my brother and I were torn from her arms. I swell with the pride that the first soldiers felt in 1948, donning army uniforms blazoned with the Star of David, their muscles bulging in defence of our people. A tightness grips my chest as I read reports of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem. I have the chills sitting here writing this, thinking of the establishment a sovereign Jewish State after thousands of years of exile and hardship.
Censures, boycotts and sanctions continuously pile up against Israel. The situation is unendurable for the Palestinians, but the international community refuses to understand that, in a different way, it is also for the Israelis. Netanyahu's frank statements should carry far more resonance than they do. What other nation could endure sustained missile fire from the internally recognized terrorist organizations of Hamas and Hezbollah with such restraint? What other government could face direct calls for its people's annihilation without even alluding to its full military capabilities as a form of deterrent? Israel appears secure now, but the smallest mistake could see it disappear from the map.
Peace is a two-way street. I don't think that Netanyahu has done nearly enough to push the process forward, but I support his stance on Hamas. No country can be expected to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction, the liquidation of its citizens, and the murder of Jews the world over. My life has been privileged, the differences I've experienced for my Jewish identity have been much less marked than those for my sexual orientation, but as a Jew I understand the determination and fear that drives Netanyahu. Unfortunately, Israel constantly hangs in an uncertain balance between life and death. The realization of the Palestinian's right to self-determination and of both people's right to security, stability and freedom is the ultimate aim, but it cannot come at the cost of risking the destruction of the one true home we Jews have.