Somewhere Else

First place in Honi Soit’s 2015 Opinion Competition, as judged by Executive Editor of the New Yorker, Amelia Lester.

I grew up somewhere else.

My family home was in Bondi, but we didn’t really live there. We dwelt in our own village, hidden from the world. To everyone else, Bondi Road was a strip of cafés and restaurants, but to us it was the path from home to synagogue, and from synagogue to dinner – our own Diagon Alley. Every Friday night we’d walk the same routes in our Sabbath finery, seemingly invisible to the world about us.

Our peculiar piety was weaved into everything we did. We went to our own schools and had our own youth groups. I grew up praying in Hebrew, studying in Aramaic, and greeting my fellow townsfolk in Yiddish. We were taught to understand the Scripture, and to memorise the Liturgy. We were taught the minutiae of religious practice: how long one must wait between eating meat and dairy, how far a man may walk with his head uncovered, how much wine one needs to drink after reciting a sanctification (answers: six hours, four cubits, and enough to fill one cheek). We were taught to treat other Jews, all other Jews, as family. And we were taught to love Israel.

The very word seems to hang over the page now, like a fart in polite company. It was never like that when I was a teenager. Israel was a point of pride – a revival of our ancestral homeland, a fine example of Jewish entrepreneurial spirit, and an extra country to back in the Olympics. We’d find plenty to argue about when it came to her politics—the Occupation, the settlers, the Wall—but Israel was always our country, and we loved her.

The first time I got into an argument about Israel at university, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, something comfortable and familiar. But the difference between the way things were done at university and the way things were done at home quickly became apparent. The feelings of camaraderie and support that I was used to were gone, which was to be expected. But what came as a shock was the venom that replaced it. People hated me. Not just what I said, but what I was. Where I expected a counter-argument, I instead was told: “Fuck off, Zionist scum.” My love of Israel was seen as an inexcusable failing in my character. When I spoke in solidarity with the Palestinian people at an Al-Nakba Day Rally, I was angrily condemned, and told I had no business being there (not by anyone at the rally, I should note, but by absent students).

My Jewish friends who are less combative were received with similar suspicion, and gradually we all stopped being quite so public. One friend of mine started hiding her Star of David necklace whilst at uni. Another stopped correcting people who assume he’s South American. We started being invisible again, just like when we were children—but it didn’t feel so magical this time.

For a long while, I felt like an unfortunate casualty. There are undoubtedly important things to be said against Israel, I thought, and most of the people here who say them are well-meaning. They’re fighting for a more just world. Perhaps we’re all just being thin-skinned about it.

But recently my morose resignation has transformed into a hot indignation. It occurred to me that no-one else has to put up with this. Others are not called to account for the crimes of their people or their faith. If a gang of political activists confronted a Chinese student for the sins of China, or a Muslim student for the sins of Islam, they would be roundly and rightly brought to task for it. They who are so commendably careful to avoid giving offense to any other minority see no cause to employ the same respect or caution when dealing with Jews.

We are made to feel ashamed for who we are. We are taught to hide and downplay our Judaism. We are reminded, every single day, that we grew up somewhere else.