Although I now live in Israel, experiencing three years of living and studying in Hebrew, I still speak English the majority of the time. So it would stand to reason that when I am visiting America, I speak English there as well. Last week, however, sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in Chicago, checking the news back home, I found myself wanting to yell something matter-of-factly in Hebrew, or push ahead of someone in line, or some other sabra-style action that would identify me as an Israeli. It is a confusing yet satisfying feeling I often feel when visiting the States.

The news story that evoked this desire for patriotism and Israeli identification most intensely was the story of the alleged Mossad spy arrested in Egypt, Ilan Grapel. While Israel has been insistent that Grapel is not a spy, and almost all the evidence seems to support this, Egypt now claims Grapel has admitted to working for the Mossad. In reality, it appears that Grapel is being held in custody for the mere fact that he was once an Israeli soldier.

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In addition to the obvious “hey how is that new Egyptian government working out for everybody?” question this story clearly evokes, a more subtle question arises on this journalists hardwiring: How can a story about a kid, roughly your own age, who is being persecuted for being labeled an Israeli, cause you to desire being distinguished as Israeli as well? On first glance it seems almost self-destructive to wish you were thrown into the very category that is endangering Ilan Grapel’s life. Of course being in America as opposed to Egypt and being labeled an Israeli is far less perilous, but nonetheless, it was still peculiar for this news story in particular to evince such seemingly paradoxical sentiments.

I put these confusing thoughts on the back-burner for a short time, as I became engrossed in the purely academic research on the great “marble frosting vs. cinnamon stick” debate (the results are inconclusive pending further sampling by the way), but it was not completely out of mind. Later, as I sat at a red light I saw a sign that said “Welcome to the village of Skokie” and I laughed to myself. The thought that popped into my head was “does a Jew who lives in Skokie see this sign and swell with pride?” At that moment I understood the bizarre desire I had to be seen as Israeli at a time when that tag carries so much baggage. I asked the quiet in my rental car “in this ‘post-modern’ world that Western culture has embraced with open arms, do people in general, and Jews in specific, lack the desire to find meaning in their everyday comings and goings? And if not, wouldn’t living in Skokie, or Teaneck, or any other city outside of Israel be such a wasted opportunity to inject some of that ever-elusive significance?”

Living in Israel is what “identifies” me today. Living in Israel infuses me with meaning. I am a member of the nation that stands somberly yet hopefully with Noam and Aviva Schalit every night in anticipation of their son’s return home. I am a card-carrying member of the nation that, despite vicious attacks alleging war crimes and oppression, risk the lives of its own young soldiers to ensure their operations result in the least amount of civilian casualties possible. And I am a loyal team member of the nation that will not rest until Ilan Grapel is freed from his captivity brought about because he was one of our teammates at one point in his life. I live in a country that gives me religious, as well as national, meaning to every step I take in my life.

After these considerations how could I not want to make sure I wasn’t mistaken for a Jew in Skokie, even at the risk of stigmatization and bias? The late great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said “If I am ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” I would hope that my decision to live in Israel would make the prosecutor’s case a slam dunk and I would be looking at a mighty long stint in the clink. While Ilan Grapel must unfortunately deal with this concept literally, it is a concept so many Jews fail to even consider metaphorically each and every day. For a Jew, being Israeli means being. Paradox solved.

 


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