Savyonne Steindler is a 2012 graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she majored in Anthropology and Jewish Studies. After commencement, she decided to pursue a different kind of education and enrolled in the Yahel Social Change Program. This 9 month service-learning program focuses on community-centered empowerment work with Ethiopian Israelis in Gedera, Israel. The following are her reflections on the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza.
During the period of intensive rocket fire that accompanied Operation Pillar of Defense, the Yahelnikim were in the north at Kibbutz Hanaton. This kibbutz is a community unlike any other I have experienced. Most communities form around some commonality – whether socioeconomic, ethnic, or ideological. Hanaton’s founders, however, intentionally chose to disrupt this tendency. The only qualities the residents share is that they self-identify as Jewish and value pluralism. Hanaton’s potential to become a truly pluralistic Jewish society is limited by the simple fact that many Jewish Israelis would prefer to live among people like themselves. Even so, the kibbutz boasts considerable diversity. Its membership includes Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews; conventional and non-traditional families.
Ariela Graetz, a Reform rabbi who lives in Hanaton with her Orthodox husband and their children, explained to us that for her, “pluralism means staying with your own identity and compromising just until it hurts.” Kibbutzniks like Ariela acknowledge that living in a mixed community can be uncomfortable. But instead of understanding this discomfort as a deterrent, they see it as an essential challenge.
Over the last few days, I’ve realized that the significance of this philosophy extends to the very reason I found myself at Hanaton. For all of my adult life, I have been struggling with my relationship to Israel/Palestine. My identity as a half-Israeli Jew often comes in conflict with my critical liberalism. Even when I find a way to reconcile these identities within myself, I run into problems when relating to others. I cannot talk to most people about Israel/Palestine without feeling deeply troubled. When I speak with die-hard Zionists, I cringe at their nationalism and lack of concern for minority voices. When I converse with anti-Zionists, I immediately balk at their portrayal of my Israeli loved ones.
My experiences during the recent military engagement with Gaza added a new dimension to this familiar turmoil. My emotionally-charged recollections of hearing sirens and booms are now forever coupled with my abstract ideas about “the conflict.” Far from helping me solidify my opinions, this first-hand knowledge confused me. After leaving Gedera on the second day of the Operation, I immersed myself in online media. Everything I read felt wrong. On the one hand I had learned that being under threat of rocket fire is no way to live. One is always listening, waiting for the siren. Yet, I couldn’t rationalize the disproportionate Gazan suffering either. Does violence justify greater violence? I slipped into an apathetic despair, dissatisfied with any solutions the Israeli government or my activist friends were pursuing. It seemed that there was no future for this country, and it’d be best to remove myself from it and those discussing it.
Since returning to Gedera, I’ve started to process all that happened within the course of that week. Surprisingly, my reflections have brought me full circle, back to Hanaton. When faced with contradictions and confusion, it’s easiest to withdraw and surround yourself with people and ideas you agree with. Hanaton’s residents could ignore the issue of Jewish disunity and live with others like themselves. Similarly, I have the privilege to be able forget the Israel-Palestine conflict and return home to the States. Both these options would be comfortable. But the more I grow up, the more I realize how important it is to experience discomfort, to expose ourselves to people and situations that frustrate us a bit. What’s dangerous is when we surround ourselves only with similar people, denying ourselves the opportunities to recognize the depth and breadth of complexity that exists. I feel that my time in Israel is all about experiencing this discomfort, throwing myself into something messy and learning how to be all right with that.