Semester 'Abroad' in the Alteneuland
I am on a quest for the unfamiliar during my study abroad travels in Israel.
This is not a common sentiment for the average study abroad student. Most of my college peers find themselves lost in a new city and tend to actively seek out familiar spaces. A semester abroad is typically a time for students to immerse themselves in an entirely new country, where the culture is foreign and the activities endless, where something as simple as taking the bus can prove an exciting event. Things are a little different for me. As someone who has been to Israel countless times, and even spent a year here between high school and college at an Israeli seminary on a kibbutz, I am beyond the point of getting a taste of Israel. Instead, I find myself feeling deeply entrenched in the internal dynamics of this country, leaving me wondering: am I really abroad here?
Perhaps the very fact that I’m asking myself this question should be seen as an indicator of the success of my Jewish education. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish environment and attending Jewish schools and summer camps, I have been engaged in conversations about Israel for most of my life. Of course, this began less as a dialogue and more as an unwavering, single-minded support for Israel – my schools required me to attend the Israeli Day parade and inculcated me with an unconditional love for the land. But over the years, this engagement with Israel transformed into a complicated and nuanced relationship with the country. At times, my childhood love for Israel is in conflict with my current understanding of the situation here.
Four years ago, I had the privilege of spending a night in Bethlehem with Encounter, an organization dedicated to facilitating dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. This trip was specifically geared towards students spending their gap year between high school and college in Israel, and was meant to expose them to the Palestinian narrative—one with which they had not seriously engaged before. The trip was informative and deeply upsetting, causing me to feel an overwhelming sense of dread with regard to the state of the political situation here. I think of this trip as a turning point for me with regards to how I think of Israel – the first time I began to actually see its flaws. And yet, I chose to come back for my semester abroad.
Because of my long term engagement with Israel and my discomfort with many of its historical and current policies, I never expected that I would end up here for a semester abroad. The primary reason I am here is to participate in the Nachshon Project, a fellowship designed for North American college juniors interested in careers in the Jewish professional world. That we would be living and learning in Israel was not what compelled me to participate; rather, my desire to pursue a Jewish professional career drew me to the Hebrew University-based fellowship. Israel is both a wonderful and difficult place to find myself living once again for an extended period of time, but I now understand that it was exactly what I needed. When I first arrived at Columbia, I thought my deep connection to Israel combined with my recognition of some of its deepest flaws would allow me to participate in meaningful dialogue on campus. Although I tried to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conversation on campus, I ultimately found the discussions to be toxic and fruitless. There is no room on our campus to develop an opinion that does not toe a party line; it often feels that nuance is entirely un-welcomed. Columbia turned out not to be the best place for me to figure out how I feel about Israel. I recognize now that I can best do that here.
When the Nachshon Project recently brought us to hear from Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli author best known for his book, Like Dreamers, I found myself wishing that Israel-related discourse on campus was more focused on the questions he raises in his book. Instead of asking, “Should there be Israel?” we should be asking, as Halevi’s book does, “What is Israel? What is its place in the international community?” These questions resonate deeply with me, as I feel pulled by my support for a Jewish homeland and pulled as well by the injustices it is committing. And still, I am here.
Despite all of my angst, I am enjoying my time in Israel immensely, trying new experiences, traveling around, and improving my proficiency in Hebrew. The Hebrew University has allotted me time to finally begin learning Arabic, and has given me the opportunity to learn in an environment of tremendous historical and religious significance. The ruins of the ancient City of David lie a mere ten minute bus ride from my school, where my class had the opportunity to walk through their ancient water system. It was a whole new experience, and, for a history major like me, quite spectacular. Through living in downtown Jerusalem, traveling around Israel and outside Israel, meeting new people, pushing myself beyond my comfortable limits, I feel both content and discontent.
Living in Israel raises doubts and worries for what the future holds. Things seem to be turning for the worse here: because of the current government, because of the continued occupation, because of growing tensions on both sides, because of the halting of any real efforts for peace. My abroad experience is fraught with a deep fear that future generations may not be able to spend time in Israel like I have been able to. And I still could not feel more privileged to be here. Theodor Herzl describes his vision for Israeli society in a volume called Altneuland, “Old-New Land,” a problematic book in its own right. But the paradox of its title is fitting here, as I spend this semester in my own old-new land. Being in Israel feels new and different and old and familiar all at the same time.
//MIRIAM LICHTENBERG is a junior in Barnard College and is Essays Editor of The Current. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy of BlueHorizon.