Truth or dare: My name is Michal and I am from Israel

I could feel my cheeks turning an embarrassing, bright red. The tip of my finger twisted slowly and subconsciously between my teeth. I was biting my nails — something I rarely do.

It was my first day of Arabic class, and my new teacher had just asked all of us to share a little information. We were supposed to introduce ourselves, say why we were in the class, whether we had studied Arabic or other languages before, and, of course, tell everybody where we were from.

It was the last question that made me nibble my nails in anxiety, as I counted the number of people who sat ahead of me. Soon it would be my turn to present myself — and to state my country of origin.

The answer should have been a simple, effortless, “I’m from Israel.” But instead, different possibilities and the justifications for those possibilities filled my head.

I didn’t know what the others would think if I told them the truth. After all, I was in a group of people who, for various reasons, wanted to learn Arabic. Some of them were Muslims or Arab Americans, others were from a variety of backgrounds. I assumed that most of them — because of their interest in Arabic — had more of a pro-Palestinian political tilt than a pro-Israeli one.

I was there to learn Arabic for several reasons: I believed I would be more skilled and efficient as a journalist if I could speak English, Hebrew and Arabic (if I decided to work in Israel); several people in my family (and many Israelis in general) speak Arabic; and, I think it is fun and beneficial to study a second or third language.

I wasn’t taking this class to get involved in political discussions or arguments.

I didn’t want to lie about my country of origin. I’m proud of Israel, but, at the same time, I wanted to feel comfortable in the class, not to have to deal with irrelevant interrogations. I’d had several bad experiences of having to answer loaded and accusatory questions after revealing my controversial motherland.

I once had to interview two members of the Palestinian student union at San Francisco State University for an article I was writing.

I remember sitting in their office and watching as one of them laid out and folded large flags from different Arab countries. They were preparing decorations for an upcoming party hosted by the Palestinian student union.

The interview was surprisingly smooth. For about an hour, I listened, just as I had been trained to do, without inserting any of my own background or beliefs into my questions. I wrote down everything they said, most of which was vehemently anti-Israel.

All of a sudden, the tables were turned and one of them asked me a question: “Where are you from?”

I looked up from my chicken-scratch notes and slowly put my pen down.

I hesitated for a moment. Would these young men still trust me as an objective journalist after realizing my cultural identity? Would they make me feel uncomfortable? Would I be able to continue the interview?

I considered telling them I was from another country — but which one? Portugal? Colombia? Russia?

After a split-second run through several semesters’ worth of “ethical journalism” lectures (as well as a quick overview of my own ethical and moral considerations), I decided to go with the truth.

“I am Israeli,” I said, looking clearly into their faces, trying to mask my anxiety with an air of nonchalance.

They both looked at me in disbelief.

For a brief moment, I thought I saw traces of an epiphany in their eyes. I thought they saw me as a person, maybe began to see Israel as a collection of persons instead of an overly aggressive military entity.

Unfortunately, the conversation quickly slipped into propaganda. They continued their manifesto with more vigor than before. Their mission was to convince me of my country’s racist, colonial and imperialistic behavior. My mission was to continue to take notes.

Now it was my turn to make that same quick decision again.

With the solemn and timid air of a first-timer at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I looked at the teacher and said, “My name is Michal and I am from Israel.”

I could feel the quiet in the room.

“Ah, shalom,” he said, smiling broadly. “Welcome to the class.”

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].