By Dr. Sarina ChenA good friend told me once that when Americans meet an Israeli the subject of the discussion will always go to the conflict: If you talk about Israeli food – they will ask you about the influence of humus over the conflict and vice versa. If you talk about the creation stories in Genesis, someone will find a way to ask how the two versions of creation affect the conflict with the Palestinians. If you speak about Hebrew love poets or Jewish writers from Spain in the Middle Ages, you should not be surprised when someone says that this is a metaphor of the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
I found that it really does not matter what I am talking about; at a certain point someone will raise a hand and ask me about "the conflict." I arrived at Northeastern University in Boston a few months ago and it was a very exciting experience to meet my new students. Some of the kids (as they call themselves) had just returned from a Birthright trip to Israel and were enthusiastic and fascinated from the thought- provoking journey that related to their self-identity definition as Jewish people. After spending ten days in Israel, the students came to the conclusion that they knew everything about the place. They came back saying that it is an amazing country (I won''t argue with it).They found that Israel "is a great place like nowhere else in the world. The youngsters are so mature and proud of their own country. You cannot find it anywhere else, surly not in America." The students came home supporting Israeli policy without any second thought.
On the other hand I have been asked by students in the same class "what do you have in Israel besides war and desert?" Others were amazed to watch a movie and find out that "There are buildings over there." Yet another student informed me that, "the purpose of the separation wall is to set apart the Arabs from the Jews" and was shocked when I told him that I had Arab classmates at my university in Israel and that we lived in the same dormitories. These questions obviously show the picture, fed by the media, that many people hold about Israel- a tale of darkness, with neither love nor compassion.
In the beginning it was very flattering to hear the complements on my homeland, and challenging to open the eyes of the prosecutors to some obvious facts about Israel. Later on I found out that these two opposite attitudes actually have something in common- both of them refuse to see Israel as a place of real living people: Individuals with loves and hates, with families and jobs, with dreams and disappointments. They ignore the fact that Israel deals with many internal social and economic problems, the fact that Israel is a multi-cultural country. Israel is a place where different kinds of Jews - Mizrachim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites, Ethiopians, Indian, Russians, traditional, secular, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform- live side by side with many disagreements; a place where you can find different sects of Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bedouin, Israeli Arabs and territory Arabs, foreign workers from all over the world, African refugees and so on. All these groups of people rarely live together in a perfect harmony, but the colorful combination of this fabric creates a dynamic, creative life of culture and art. A colorful human mosaic of people with many tensions and gaps, these different groups has different interests and use their relative power in an ultra dynamic political arena.
It seems that both of the mentioned groups do not really understand that Israel is not only a political issue, or an exotic Jewish paradise. It is not a chess table where you can easily define the "black" and the "white." Israel is a place where real people live their life in a highly complex situation.
Dr. Sarina Chen is a Schusterman/AICE Visiting Israeli Scholar at Northeastern University’s Program of Jewish Studies in Boston, Massachusetts.