The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai reading at Tmol Shilshom Cafe in 1994, "a cultural hub in Jerusalem" that Zella Lezak counts as one of her favorite places in Israel. (Photo/Wikimedia-Yair Medina CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai reading at Tmol Shilshom Cafe in 1994, "a cultural hub in Jerusalem" that Zella Lezak counts as one of her favorite places in Israel. (Photo/Wikimedia-Yair Medina CC BY-SA 3.0)

Convincing my high school peers that Israel is more than black and white

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“Zella, Israel is a very complicated place.”

I have heard that more times than I can count. Both of my parents are rabbis, and I went to Jewish day school from ages 3 to 14. So avoiding conversations about Israel was out of the question. I was always put off by the polarizing opinions. And at Jewish day school, there was a not-so-hidden expectation that everyone should unconditionally love Israel.

For a while, this did not bother me at all. I was happy to sing “Hatikvah” and eat falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut. I felt blessed to go on our many family trips to Israel and to be surrounded by so many of my fellow Jews.

Toward the end of middle school, I started looking at Israel with a more skeptical eye. I learned more about Israel’s 50-plus year occupation of the West Bank and how it has had a devastating impact on Palestinians.

Because this unjust reality pains me, I started to become increasingly critical of Israel, especially when I was with Jews who were fervent and sometimes not introspective supporters of Israel. I struggled whenever I found that they were not open to discussing areas where Israel might not be in the right.

My newfound criticism also made me think about some not-so-fond memories of Israel, like when my family was heading to temple on Friday night and a group of Orthodox men came out and starting screaming “Shabbos!” at the cars, outraged that people were driving on Shabbat. Even at a young age, I knew that a Shabbat where there was screaming and fighting was not a day of rest in the slightest.

At my new school, I struggle to encourage a perspective of Israel that is not always critical.

I also remember when my 6-year-old sister was made to cover up before going to the Western Wall. When this happened, it confused me. Now it enrages me, because it alluded to the idea that unless she covered up, my sister could be considered sexually attractive — at age 6! I am still horrified when thinking of this story. Having these experiences, how would it have been possible for me to think of Israel as a perfect place?

After middle school, I started going to a non-Jewish high school, and people’s opinions on Israel could not be more different. At my new school, I struggle to encourage a perspective of Israel that is not always critical. Almost all of what people know about Israel is how the government mistreats Palestinians in the territories. To some extent, I’m glad to now have peers who recognize the injustices that take place in Israel. However, I wish that they had a more balanced view and did not see only Israel’s problems.

I’m working up the courage to tell my peers about David Ehrlich, an Israeli author who owns a café that is one of my favorite places in all of Israel. The café, Tmol Shilshom, is a cultural hub in Jerusalem where authors can have readings of their work. People of all walks of life gather together to eat amazing food surrounded by inspiring literature. I would also tell my peers about Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish community and one of the kindest and most generous people that I have ever met. Tamar is a rabbi of the Jerusalem congregation Zion and a fierce justice activist who is fighting regularly for the rights of Palestinians and African refugees. I wish that I could tell my peers about these righteous people.

It’s hard, because I so often encounter people who only see Israel through a black or white lens. I wish that I could tell skeptics that, while their points are valid, they haven’t been exposed to the whole picture. If you really care about Israel, you should be able to hold multiple truths about a land that is very complicated.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Zella Lezak
Zella Lezak

Zella Lezak is a high school student at the Urban School of San Francisco with an interest in journalism.