Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Search for Facts

Creating artwork often provides me with a lens on the world, something I am always trying to make sense of. I want to understand it on a factual level and ultimately, I want facts and my emotional response to line up in a congruent whole, like a row of cherries clicking into place on a slot machine. In today’s world, I need to spend a lot of time vetting my facts, considering the source, their politics and how independent their judgment truly is. Both the need to vet, and the difficulty in doing so, has become very evident to me with a current project.
I am participating in a collaboration with Israeli artists to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Israel. The focus is on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. There is a cross-cultural element baked in as our experience in our respective countries may offer differing perspectives. Already in my discussions with my Israeli partner, we have explored how the military service requirement in Israel serves a unifying purpose that we lack here in the United States where military experience touches a small segment. I have also been struck by how many of the Israelis came from somewhere else. Many of them have chosen Israel as their home rather than being there through an accident of birth. Aliya we call it, going up, as if to the very mountain where it began for Moses and the Jewish people.
As part of this project we discuss a variety of texts; biblical, poetry, music and historic documents. I read them looking for the words that cause me to pause, to pay attention, words that stir questions. Unlike some of my fellow artists who have spent much time in Israel, I am relatively new to first-hand experience with only two visits, both in recent years. When my Israeli counterpart and I spoke of early impressions, I remembered contributing to the planting of trees in Israel as a child. As a teen, I remember reading Exodus by Leon Uris. For a teenage girl, this was pretty heady stuff. I was ready to go join a kibbutz.  The six-day war fell during my teenage years and was a source of pride for Jews everywhere. We knew we were well represented on the Nobel prize list (22.5% in case you were wondering), but fighting back, and winning, was something new. 
Every Jew grew up with the history of the Holocaust lurking as a reminder. In my family, we had one survivor who came to the United States after the war. When I was a child, he would pick me up at the airport when I went down to visit my grandmother in Miami. I stayed with her in her little apartment on Collins Avenue, walking in excruciatingly tiny steps, slowed to match hers, as we visited the fish market on her round of errands. The eyes of huge fish glared back at me, surrounded by the rapid-fire cadence of Yiddish as old women jostled to the counter to make their purchases. I would carry my grandmother's chair to the beach, where she would meet her deeply-tanned geriatric boyfriend. My entry into that somewhat mysterious world was framed by the bigger mystery of this cousin with his weighty story. I would look for the tattooed number on his arm, curious, but too intimidated by that somber history to intrude with questions. Years later as an adult, I interviewed him about his memories. Later still, I became aware of the shadow behind that solitary cousin, the fifty members of our family who did not survive, who were murdered.

It is out of these experiences that I find my emotional response to Israel predicated on these facts; If you are a Jew, the world can turn on you. Even the US, turned its back on Jews during WWII, sending refugees back to their death, rejecting legislation to take in 20,000 Jewish children. As I learn about our immigration history, I am often shocked at my own country. It seems unfathomable to question one’s safety in the United States, and yet, history gives me pause.

With Israel, I always have a place of safety. At the end of the day it boils down to this: a well-founded distrust of my safety at the hands of others in this world, contrasted with a place which would always open its arms to me. If you are Jewish this awareness resides within you on a visceral level. It attunes you to threats in the environment and sensitizes you to others under threat. That sense of vulnerability shapes your politics and your sense of responsibility to others. It is a part of Jewish identity and a part of the relationship that many Jews have with Israel.
The world was happy to embrace Israel when it was the underdog who made the desert bloom. Today, it is a more complicated story. Another underdog vies for attention, another set of claims, information skewed in the cause of partisan views. My search for simple facts is frustrating. I look at college campuses and the BDS movement as I remember the simple and often uninformed lens through which I once saw the world as a young college student. The world was much more black and white and righteous indignation was often the predominant response. I wanted the world to make sense then too and hadn’t yet learned to accommodate the grays. The simple world of planting trees and teenage fantasies has become much more complicated.  
Antisemitism is never far from the discourse of those who object to Israel’s existence. It is a slippery devil, mutating to invade this new host, an ugly virus that always seems to find a home. I am deeply disturbed by this nascent antisemitism that has begun to enter college campuses and politics, finding homes in countries I once thought of as reasonably enlightened.
And still, I am a Jew. It is part of my heritage and my responsibility to value truth and honesty and self-reflection, to question if we have met the standards we would choose to live by. How have we done at creating a society that is congruent with those values? That is the question I come back to as I begin this exploration. There are practical realities that must be balanced, security in a world where others would seek our destruction. How does one maintain an open society in the face of danger?  Israel is a complex society with many divisions even among Jews. The Haredim in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, are worlds away from my secular brand of Judaism and yet they have excessive influence within Israel on many issues. I remind myself that there are sharp divisions in American society as well. We aspire to an ideal, but seldom live in one. And so, I begin.

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