Is There Space for an anti-Zionist Israeli-Palestinian Family in the U.S. Jewish Community?

In America, as a Jewish-Muslim, pro-BDS couple we've tried to find our place with little success. But I didn't expect to feel nostalgic for the secular Jewish culture I was most comfortable with: a kind that's only found in Israel

A stone barrier painted with an Israeli flag in Hebron, December 15, 2015.
Gil Cohen-Magen

I was less than a year in south Florida when an Israeli friend invited me to her son’s brit milah. She was a secular Israeli who’d served in the IDF and had lived, for a time, on a kibbutz.

So I was surprised when I found myself outside of an Orthodox synagogue; I was even more surprised when I found the place full of black hats and discovered that I wasn’t attending a brit milah, after all, but, rather, a gender-segregated bris.

I pulled my friend aside, expressing my confusion. She shrugged.   

Two years later, I was shocked to find myself outside of the same building, picking my daughter up from the preschool attached to the synagogue.

If my husband and I had stayed in Israel-Palestine, we would have never sent our daughter to a preschool of any religious orientation. We probably would have remained in the West Bank, where his family would have helped with childcare. She would have been raised a Muslim Palestinian.

But I likely would have brought her in to Israel with me for the holidays and the occasional Shabbat on the beach in Tel Aviv. There, she would have absorbed my brand of secular Judaism - chagim and Hebrew.

Or maybe we would have ended up getting a permit for my husband to live with me inside if Israel, a permit that he would have to renew every year, a permit that guarantees only perpetual uncertainty. Actually, that scenario is a bit of a stretch - my husband is opposed to the permit system. Why should I have to ask the Israelis, newcomers to the place my family has lived for five centuries, for permission to access my own land? he asks. But let’s pretend that my husband put aside his anti-permit thing so that we could live inside the Green Line together.

Had we done that, we would have sent her to a secular daycare, no questions asked.

But here we are, in America.

The Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Miami, May 2, 2016.
Lynne Sladky, AP

When we arrived, I thought that I might find my brand of secular Judaism at the local Jewish Community Center. Of course, I had no idea what a JCC was.

There was no JCC in the small, Southern town where I’d grown up (the KKK, on the other hand, was active). And when I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford synagogue dues, Jewish day schools, or summer camps. As a young adult, that was part of Israel’s appeal: I could be a Jew for free there, without joining anything or paying for anything.

The word "community" gave me the idea that the JCC might offer something similar. Expecting to find a warm, laidback place with a bulletin board - like a kibbutz dining hall - and worried that I’d lose my Hebrew while living in America, I headed to the local JCC with a handwritten flier: Are you a native Hebrew speaker who wants to improve your English? Or an English speaker who wants to learn Hebrew? Let’s talk! Below that was my brand-new American number.

Instead of the cozy center I’d fantasized about, I found a locked facility, floors polished to a shine, an Israeli flag flying out front. I wasn’t allowed to tack up my flier; rather than a language partner, I found only sparsely attended exercise classes. It wasn’t what I was looking for but I’d put on some weight during the 2014 summer war and, I told myself, it’s like getting a personal trainer for next to nothing.

After kickboxing one day, I was chatting with an elderly man, a physician who ran a group practice. He mentioned that he had, on a number of occasions, passed up Arab and Muslim applicants for no other reason than that they were Arab or Muslim. He said this casually, as though I would naturally sympathize. I said nothing; I stopped going to exercise classes.

Then there was the brief stint working at the JCC’s daycare where, ahead of Tu B’Shevat, staff received educational materials printed off of the JNF’s website. The same JNF that, today, wants to replace the Bedouin village of Al Araqib with trees; the same JNF that planted forests over the remains of Palestinian villages that were emptied in 1948.

No, the JCC wasn’t the place for me. Even when I managed to set aside the particulars of the JCC’s politics, I wondered: Is this a community?

It seemed more like a bland corporation where some executives decided what it meant to be Jewish and then dictated that vision, top-down, to customers. It was Judaism Lite, with a dash of blind allegiance to Israel for flavor.

A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, synagogue in Djerba, southern Tunisia,Oct. 28, 2015.

That last part seemed strange to me, as did the Israeli flag outside of the building. Weren’t we all Jews before both Zionism and the modern state of Israel existed? What does Israel - a place that most American Jews haven’t visited, let alone lived in - have to do with anything? Why have we traded thousands of years of history and culture to base our identity, instead, on a piece of land? And why, I wondered, is there more space in Israel for dissent than there is in the American Jewish community?

Needless to say, I let my membership lapse. 

Then I got work adjuncting.  I needed to find childcare. Fast. None of the secular preschools I visited were a fit;  the JCC was certainly out of question. I remembered the place where my friend’s son had his brit milah. I dropped by. There was no Israeli flag out front but there was Hebrew inside.

What’s the harm in a little religion? I asked myself. I signed my daughter up.

While I initially felt encouraged by the place’s welcoming attitude. I told them about our unique family situation and they seemed accepting. But I became concerned about the content. However silly, I was disappointed that their sort of Hebrew wasn’t the Hebrew I’d learned in Israel. Sukkot isn’t "Sukkot" but, rather, “Sukkos.” It’s not shabbat shalom but "gut shabbos." The kids don’t study the alef-bet. No, it’s the alef-beis.

Something else wasn’t sitting right with me. On Rosh Hashanah when I accompanied my daughter to the children’s program, I figured out what it was: . When they did a mock tashlikh, the children fished "good" and "bad" things out of a bag, tossing the "bad" into a large piece of paper, painted blue, decorated with fish, representing a body of water, and receiving candy for the "good."

"Good" and "bad"? I didn’t want her internalizing the labels and feeling the guilt or shame common to religious people of all the Abrahamic faiths. I was uncomfortable with how black and white it all was, I was uncomfortable with the moralizing. At the end of the day, this place wasn’t so different than the JCC, I realized. It was just as dogmatic.

For me, as it turned out, any bit of religion is too religious. I wanted my version of Judaism - Jewish culture, as practiced by secular Israelis. Chagim and Hebrew.

As I considered pulling her out of the preschool, I wondered: What would my daughter learn about Judaism from me, really? Tiras kham with my terrible American accent and maybe, when my husband isn’t around, we’ll listen to some Arik Einstein and vintage Haim Moshe? Here, in the U.S., with my Hebrew and non-synagogue chagim, I’m a community of one.  

It’s a contradiction I can’t quite square with myself. I consider myself an anti-Zionist. Or maybe I’m a non- or post-Zionist. Whatever I am, I oppose the current incarnation of Israel as a place that offers privilege to Jews while depriving Palestinians of their human and civil rights.

Though I’m not sure one state is going to go very well - and make no mistake, the window for a two-state solution closed a very long time ago - I oppose the two-state solution. I support the BDS movement. I oppose Israel’s attempt to co-opt Jewish identity. And yet, here I am, cringing when I hear Yiddish pronunciations and wincing at religion, and yes, nostalgic for a certain kind of Israeliness.

As for the local Arab community, my husband’s hours are too long to get involved. Passing his identity on to our daughter means that he speaks Arabic and only Arabic with her, and that we eat a lot of Arab food. And soon after our daughter was born, my husband gave up pork - a nod, however small, to his Muslim roots., but a big deal in south Florida where, thanks to the Latin influence, we’re surrounded by pig products.

Dome of  the Rock

On Eid al-Fitr we went to a nearby mosque so that our daughter would feel the holiday spirit. I covered my hair loosely with a scarf for the occasion; months later, when my little girl happens upon any long scrap of fabric, she drapes it over her head, points at me, and shouts "Mama! Mama!" As my husband and I are both secular, neither of us feel enthusiastic about the idea of our toddler donning the hijab, even for play.

And, from what little we’ve seen of the community here, it seems that, as is the case with American Jews, participation would revolve around religion. I wonder, too, if we did manage to find some sort of secular Arab community, how we would be accepted as a mixed couple. Would I have to hide my identity?

When I picked my daughter up from school a month ago on Erev Sukkot, the director came out to wish me a happy holiday, a pleasant Sukkos. Grey clouds were gathering on the horizon. Pointing at the sukkah, I asked the director how she was going to eat and sleep outside with all this rain. "It doesn’t work here," I continued. "Sukkot only works there."

She nodded.

Chag sameach,” I said, as I pulled away. 

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist, writer, and the author of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Bethlehem. Twitter: @myaguarnieri