As an American Jew, I have grown up with an unavoidably conflicted view of Israel. Distanced from it for my whole life by about 3,500 miles, my knowledge and any subsequent opinions of the Holy Land have primarily relied on two outside sources, neither of which I have ever found to be adequate.
The first source is the news, which rarely has complimentary things to say and always seems to portray the tiny country as the center of a veritable tornado of hatred and turmoil no matter what.
The second source is Judaism — of both the religious and cultural variety — which always makes it very clear that Israel is a sacred land of milk and honey, to be loved without question.
I’ve never for one second believed that the situation was really this black and white — that the whole world hates Israel while all Jews idolize it — but, without seeing Israel with my own two eyes, how was I supposed to formulate a truthfully educated opinion for myself?
This obstacle has bothered me for as long as I can remember and ultimately led to my interest in visiting the country. My desire to visit was not out of want for some kind of religious pilgrimage, but mostly just for the sake of observation and open-mindedness.
I don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on open-mindedness, though, which is how I ended up on Taglit-Birthright. Birthright is a program that allows Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to travel to Israel from around the world essentially for free, provided that they have never previously visited the country with a youth group. In most cases, though, Birthright participants have never been to Israel in any capacity.After going through an application and interview process, I was given the green light to embark on a journey with 11 other UR students, 12 SUNY Geneseo students, eight University of Wisconsin students and eight University of Minnesota students, the latter of whom passed on an infectious Minnesotan accent to everyone on the bus.
In 11 days, our group traversed the entire country, which was a positive as well as a negative. On one hand, it was definitely the most effective way for me to get my first taste of Israeli culture and how it differs among regions. But on the other hand, because of the short duration of the trip and the huge number of places we went, it made me feel like I barely skimmed the surface of what there is to see and know. Regardless, I did learn a lot along the way. (Don’t worry. This isn’t going to get too preachy.)
There is this perception — especially among worried Jewish mothers — that when you go to Israel you’ll unquestionably get caught in the middle of an air raid and die.
Well, my group went to a farm located in a part of the Negev Desert located between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and all we have to show for it are three boys who tasted Ferula hermonis, aka natural Viagra.
The closest we got to a real controversy was ending up in the middle of a protest in Tel Aviv where unhappy Israelis were decrying the cost of living in the country. Some of us got pushed around by photographers and soldiers, but, as our tour guide told us on the bus later, “You all just saw Israeli democracy in action,” which was an invaluable experience.
That’s when I realized that whenever I hear about Israel in the news, the story is almost exclusively about its tumultuous relationship with other countries and rarely about what’s happening in the country itself.
While in Israel, I heard a few different perspectives on the Israeli government by really getting to know four of the eight Israeli soldiers who traveled with our group for five days. But it wasn’t all political; I also learned the best Israeli music to listen to, how to say “super cool” in Hebrew (mamash magniv) and that being a college student is not something to take for granted while there are people my age who are legally obligated to fight wars.
Birthright did allow me to finally close the 3,500-mile gap physically, but I definitely still haven’t closed it mentally — though I’ve made my first strides. I will probably always have conflicted thoughts about Israel — let’s be real, who doesn’t — but at least I feel like I have the right to hold those opinions now.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.