Uncomplicating My Identity by Connecting to Israel
My Israel story, like it is for many of us, is complicated.
Growing up being the only Jew in your grade, let alone your whole school system, was not easy at all. I found there was no support from my school administration and not much help even from my small local Jewish community. There was a lot of hard times and torment.
I remember approaching my mom at age 10, crying, because I had been bullied so badly that I refused to go to school for some time. “Mom, why am I Jewish?” I asked her with tears running down my face. She at the time did not have a direct answer for me, so instead of words she hugged me and cried with me.
For my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, my family went on our first trip to Israel - our first Jewish-Zionist vacation. Although my Abba is Israeli, he never taught me or my siblings Hebrew - something that unfortunately happens to many Israeli-Americans. His reasoning was that because we lived in a small Jewish community where there was not a lot of Israelis or native Hebrew speakers, and my mom didn’t know Hebrew either, it was too big of a challenge and my siblings and I would have no practical use for it. It would have only been beneficial for whenever we visited Israel, as we would have had a foundation level of the national language.
I thought that being Israeli and not knowing Hebrew would be uncommon, but as soon as I came to Israel I realized that not having knowledge of Hebrew wasn’t such an obstacle because there is always a way of reaching a common understanding. As I begin to build my life here in Israel, I realize that the foundation of Hebrew my Abba gave me was helpful as the language is indeed a tool that can connect Diaspora Jews and Israelis together.
Living that summer in Israel was the happiest summer of my life. Two weeks before coming back to the States, I looked to my parents and told them, “Abba, Mom, I’m going to live here one day.” The look on their faces was that of ambiguity and surprise. Clearly, they weren’t sure of what I meant at the time, but over the next few years they started to understand why I felt that way and how committed I was to making my dream come true.
After returning from Israel, I joined USY and became chapter president for the Seaboard Region and also joined BBYO for what became the most diverse way to stay engaged as a Jew, newly inspired by having been to our Jewish homeland. At school, I told my friends about my experience, and they revealed to me that the entire time I was in Israel they were very scared that something had happened to me in Israel because their belief is that Israel is in the center of a very hostile region. I was asked repeatedly: “Is Israel safe?” and “Why would you want to go there?” My answer was quick and honest. To the first question, all I needed was the truth - I said, “Israel is like any western country and is not what you see on the news. Walking the streets if feels like one of the safest places besides the States and Canada.”
As to why I wanted to go to Israel, it was simple: “Because it is the home of my people, culture, religion, and my family, but most importantly, my home.”
I began to laugh that my friends had not grasped what I meant, without realizing that they could not relate because I was their only Jewish friend. Ironically enough I gained a lot of African-American and Muslim friends in middle school because I was “different’ and a “minority” like them. Most people would find this unusual due to the differences in our ideologies and backgrounds, but none of that mattered because those people did not see me in a negative light or stereotype, but as a person. This made me and others realize that no matter how much hatred and ignorance is out in the Diaspora, there is still innocence and compassion towards others in the most unusual places.
Still, it seemed wherever I went, I lost friends because I was “different”: accused of being a “dirty Jew”, and from a nation that was living on stolen land.I started high school hoping for new opportunities, openness, and a fresh start, but I was mistaken. Some came to understand that the Jewish people and nation are not inherently bad, but some continued to hold this stance and refused to associate with me throughout our high school career because of my religious and cultural identity.
I thought it would be safe to tell friends and peers about my true heritage, that I am a Jewish, half-Israeli, half-Russian, and first-generation American citizen. But my peers were cruel and the school faculty continued to do nothing about the bullying and discrimination.
By this point, I had experienced almost every negative action brought before me as a Jew. I had heard awful comments such as “your people killed Christ”, “you shouldn’t be here, you’re a dirty Jew”, “all Jews should go to hell”, had a swastika spray-painted on my synagogue, and countless more. I almost became numb to these comments because I have had to live with them wherever I went.
I would tell my parents each and every day about the things other kids would say, and adopted a philosophy to never trust anyone. My mom would tell me, “Aaron, trust no one and remember to keep your wits sharp like a tool inside the shed because no one will understand you except your own people.” I realized that most people believe they understand who we are and what our cultural heritage is, but in reality they do not. We as a culture need to learn from our past to be smarter.
That philosophy and determination stayed with me until my junior year of high school when someone made a comment about the Holocaust by calling it “fake” and “a fabricated story to let Jews have their own country,” and on that day I was no longer going to remain quiet. I went right up to them and spoke of how 3 out of 4 of my great-grandparents survived the Holocaust, having watched their families murdered in the Nazi concentration camps just for being Jews, that the hate against Jews was no acceptable then, and it is not acceptable now even couched in lies about the Holocaust and Israel. We argued for the rest of the school day about how their argument was offensive and wrong, so I closed the argument with the facts and countless examples proving the Holocaust but denial is rampant.
I graduated high school surviving the discrimination and cruelty with a sigh of relief that maybe university people will be more accepting towards others. I was wrong. Things did not change much even population of just 1,600 students. It was there that I experienced a BDS rally that made me horribly uncomfortable because, once again, I was a minority without a voice in an environment fueled by hate for Jews.
I knew from then on, I needed to rediscover who I am, my culture and beliefs, and what I was going to do with that information.
I orchestrated a way to live in Israel and have it count towards a year of studying by participating on the Masa Aardvark Immersion Israel program. I chose The Israel Forever Foundation for my internship because I felt it was the best way to get my voice out and be part of a cause that I believe deeply in.
Two things I want out of life is for my voice to be heard and to obtain great success in whatever I may being doing in life. I believe we all have a voice, we just need a way to make our voices louder. And sometimes we need the push to do so, and the tools and resources that make a tangible impact when we do speak out.
My time in Israel taught me that our identity and our rights cannot be taken for granted. And neither can the power of a single voice. When we band together and take ownership of our ancestral birthright as Virtual Citizens of Israel, we can empower a movement for the future that will make sure our voices are never silenced against the hate that grows all around us.
We may not all decide to build our lives in Israel, but every one of us has a voice that can make a difference. And as Israel Forever has taught me - every one of us can stand up and be ZionProud. Take your stand today and declare your pride!
Aaron Davis is from Maryland and loves to travel and explore the world. Passionate about music, and the biggest comic book nerd you will ever meet, Aaron loves understanding other cultures in creative ways. He wishes to achieve success and make his voice heard, and believes that we all have a voice, we just need a way to make our voices louder.