On the first day of my semester abroad in Amman, Jordan, my program director explained to my group that if we were not Muslim or Christian, “It’s easiest just to tell people you’re Christian.” I did not think it would be particularly hard to avoid telling people that I was Jewish; I am not particularly religious, nor have I ever been adamant about openly displaying my Judaism. But, by the end of my four months in Jordan, I mentally and emotionally could not take it anymore.
It was not merely being unable to go to synagogue in Jordan to celebrate the Jewish New Year because none existed there. It was the ingrained societal hatred of Israel that wore me down. It was taxi drivers refusing to take my friends and I somewhere if we used the Israeli embassy as a reference point.
It was my Arabic teachers constantly belittling Israel in class and yelling at any student that voiced a different opinion. It was the progressive tribal sheikh telling a room full of people that he was “hoping and praying for the third intifada” and watching my teachers nod along with him. It was my best Jordanian friend telling me over dinner that Israel was committing a horrendous genocide that must be stopped.
It was my friend explaining his last name was derived from the Jewish name “Cohen” and my favorite Jordanian co-worker saying with a voice full of derision, “And is that something you are proud of?” I avoided all conversation regarding Israel or Palestine; I simply did not want to talk about it with people whose minds had already been made.
My semester in Jordan marked the first time I had to hide a part of my identity because people, without knowing me, would immediately hate me based on that information. I felt trapped by the inability to talk about my upbringing and family traditions or express any of my thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – unless those thoughts were “Israel is evil.” I realize that this feeling is not uncommon for many people and I have it better than most in America; I am not often the subject of racism or religiously motivated attacks.
In witnessing it firsthand, I realized how detrimental these prejudices are in ruling out productive conversation before it has a chance to begin.
When I first returned to America, I was primarily angry — I was angry not only at the closed-minded people I had met in Jordan, but also with Israel. I felt as though Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and continued occupation of the West Bank had put me, as a Jew in the Middle East, in an impossible position. Although I did not support these actions, by nature of being Jewish, I was considered responsible for them and I was made a target of animosity.
However, from this anger grew a realization; the answer was not to reject my Jewish identity, as I did in Jordan, but to embrace it. Instead of completely renouncing Israel, a country that has been a safe haven in an unfriendly world for many Jews like me, I should work to make it a place that I can embrace and proudly connect with and recognize. And that means not shrinking away from my Judaism, but rather viewing it as a responsibility to making Israel a state that reflects my Jewish values.
Living in the United States, we have the advantage of looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an outsider’s perspective. People here are often not as instantly judgmental and biased as some of the people I met in Jordan — and as many are, understandably, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Here they will engage in conversation and think proactively to work toward a better future, instead of shutting down discussion with allusions to genocide or intifadas.
One of the best places I know to engage in this constructive dialogue is J Street’s Fifth National Conference this month (https://conference.jstreet.org). The conference features peace activists, religious leaders, politicians, and others all fighting to achieve the same ends — a just solution to the conflict and an end to the violence and hatred.
Returning from Jordan, I could have used my experiences as a reason to disengage from both the conflict and my Jewish identity, citing the difficulties in overcoming the ingrained prejudices as too great to face. Instead, I’m engaging the problem —and I encourage you to do the same.
Molly Wartenberg is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She is the Co-President of J Street U at Georgetown and an Intern for J Street’s Education Fund.