By Emma Duhmel, Mitzvah Corps Israel 2017 Participant
And G-D named Yakov “Yisrael” – meaning to struggle – and made him a nation.
Today I am in this nation of struggle and challenge, complexities and complications. There’s so little about Israel that’s easy. Be it the forgotten neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv populated mostly by migrant workers and refugees, or the Palestinian citizens who feel – and are – underrepresented and misunderstood by the Ashkenazi majority, disparities fill the streets. There are detentions camps opened for refugees from Eritrea and Sudan. Ethiopian citizens face racial profiling. Many buildings are equipped with bomb shelters. When you look closely, you feel a little buzz inside of your head, like something is a little off.
The Israel I’ve been exposed to isn’t the I was told about. I didn’t walk off the airplane and feel an overwhelming sense of spirituality. Instead, I got on a bus and drove up north, passing the border with the West Bank, a Palestinian flag flying high. The sunshine I was promised brought a heat I’ve never experienced. Kibbutzim aren’t like what I was led to believe. Israel isn’t the utopia that so many of us expected; it is a real country.
But maybe that’s what makes Israel so special. It lives up to its name. How do I balance the beauty of the Jewish history prevalent in the stone buildings of Tzfat with the impoverished neighborhoods of Be’er Sheva, or the significance and magnificence of the desert with the litter on every street? At face value, there’s too much injustice for this to be my homeland. Yet at the same time, this is exactly what G-D intended. There’s still so much work to be done here and so many thoughts that need to be processed, but that’s the point of being called Yisrael. I think that’s why I’ve become completely fascinated by this nation. It’s not in spite of its complications, but rather it’s because of Israel’s complexity that I’ve begun to slowly figure out what Israel means to me as a Jew of the Diaspora. I’ll be leaving with more questions than I came here with, questions that no staff member or tour guide could provide answers to. This land of infinite learning and challenges is what the Jewish homeland should be. G-D chose the name Yisrael for a reason, and this country is following through on its name.