By Raphael Jaquette, University of Texas at Austin
Before visiting Israel, I had my preconceptions.
Zionism seemed to me a colonialist enterprise. Israeli overtures of peace were invalidated by the settlement project. Israel was not so much a place of people, but of politics. Authoritarian and unfeeling. I was a product of the binary view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Yet I perceived problems in my position. I noticed a new and insidious strain of anti-Semitism. Attacks on Judaism were cloaked as political statements against Israel and Zionism. Once, a Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) leader decried our Student Government’s “bigoted” decision to meet with Israeli and Jewish campus leaders. Disillusioned with the dichotomy, I decided to travel to the Holy Land myself.
My goals were twofold. I would learn from Palestinian and Israeli leaders and explore my closeted queer identity. Although raised Catholic, religion seemed to me an instrument of division. I had been a closeted queer man until recently, due in large part to my oppressive religious upbringing. Aware of Israel’s progressive LGBT policies, I knew it was imperative to explore Israel’s queer community, especially in Tel Aviv. I discovered the David Project’s “Israel Uncovered” trip. It offered everything I needed. I departed New York anxious yet excited.
I was rewarded.
I comprehended the tragedy of the Jewish narrative in its vastness. The walk through Yad Vashem was heart-wrenching. The overwhelming sorrow of The Hall of Names and the Children’s Memorial brought me to tears. School truly does not express the malice of the Shoah. Never had I felt so in contempt of human cruelty. Yet never I had felt so in awe of humankind’s capacity to heal. Not only did I understand the impulse for a Jewish state, I understood the need. A place where the Jewish people could escape persecution and never endure it again. That same spirit of healing was exemplified at the Ziv Medical Center. Here, Israeli doctors treated the refugees of an enemy, neighboring Arab state.
I also grasped the nuances of the conflict. I learned of the economic impulse for low-income Israeli Jews to move into the West Bank. I understood the Zionist settlers as a radical minority of a society pushing for a two-state solution and peace. I learned Israel provided the Ahmadiyya Muslim community a safe place to practice their faith, one that was denied in much of the Arab world. Speaking with former Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Ashraf al-‘Ajramii was enlightening. He criticized college campuses for their making a nuanced conflict a partisan one. Although he disagreed with most Israeli policies, he maintained the importance of bilateral discourse and working together toward peace.
I also participated in healthy and heartfelt religious traditions. From the singing, dancing, and drinking of Friday Shabbat services to the wonder and joy of the devout at the Western Wall, I felt more part of a community than I had in my whole life. I saw religion in a light I had never seen before. I met people who used faith to forge bonds instead of build walls. Years of tension and self-loathing dissipated as I walked the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem.
Just as impactful as the trip were those I travelled with, my “mishpucha.” The tour bus was comprised of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and irreligious folk – a microcosm of our pluralist society. Never had I met such a diverse yet tolerant group. They brought me closer to self-acceptance than ever before. While celebrating the Friday Shabbat services, I made the decision that they would be the people I came out to. At the trip’s end, in our final breakout session, I expressed who I was to my mishpucha. There was no religious reprimand. No look of disgust. No confusion. Only acceptance and love. I was free. I had been completed by people I had only known for ten days in a place I had once condemned.
I maintain there is a great deal the Israeli government must fix to ameliorate the conflict. But our guide and supervisors, the LGBT activists of Tel Aviv and the doctors of Ziv Medical Center, and the devout at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall unmasked the people behind the politics. A place striving to right its wrongs and push forward. A place that could use religion to unite, and not divide. Israel is not perfect. Israel is not always right. But this is a place brimming with people eager to right the wrongs of the past. This is a country that made me feel safe and loved. And for that, I will always be grateful.