BY BRITTANY TYLER
Why me? If there is one single question that all Jews have asked since Father Abraham, it could be no other. Jews have always been kicked out, singled out, persecuted, excluded, resented and unwanted, ridiculed, fooled, denied, and forced to hide–and all for no other reason than being “God’s chosen people.” Yet for what purpose did God choose them? To suffer?
Until two months ago, I had not, as my ancestors had, personally asked myself this “why me?” question. As an American, I have enjoyed the right to live in a society that judges me not by my family history but by my personal behavior, if at all. This country, in theory at least, has been since its inception a land that vows to grant equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of race or creed. In practice, that goal, of course, hasn’t yet been fully achieved… But there has been progress, and there is much hope. Jews of my generation are not subjected to the same degree of anti-Semitism that our grandparents were. The modernization of Western society has made people’s cultural distinctions less a point of contention and more a cause of celebration, and we pride ourselves on our diversity.
Still, the Holocaust was not so very long ago, and pockets of Jew-haters still exist today around the world. The creation of an Israeli state after World War II has received attacks from all fronts, intellectually, politically, and otherwise. Recognizing this “growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world,” the Israeli government along with private philanthropists started the Taglit-Birthright program, which “provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26.”From the Taglit-Birthright Israel website, http://www.birthrightisrael.com. Finding the desire in myself to get in touch with my Jewish roots and learn more about Israel, I decided to apply for the program.
Berkeley Hillel, the Jewish Student Union on campus, sends a group on birthright every winter, so I started my investigation there. During the semester, I started attending Hillel’s weekly barbecues and observed some of the Jewish holidays, sitting in on services Hillel offered, like Rosh Hashanah. I also met with an Orthodox rabbi to study the Torah a few times in his seminar, and researched Judaism a bit on my own. In mid-October, I was interviewed for the birthright trip by Dave,Name changed to protect the individual. the trip organizer, who asked me basic questions like “Have you been to Israel before?” and “Do you have any allergies?” He also asked me what I was studying at the moment, and we launched into a brief discussion of Nietzsche, a favorite philosopher of both of ours, apparently. Several weeks later, he e-mailed me, “Congratulations!” I had been chosen.
As the trip date drew closer, Hillel held meetings for us “birthrighters” to get to know each other and settle travel logistics. We were assigned to a certain bus, had our plane tickets purchased, hotel rooms designated: everything was set! Then, only a few weeks before take-off, I received an e-mail from Dave, asking me to come into his office immediately to discuss my application.
I thought that was odd. They had had ample time to look over my application and evaluate my merit. Before I applied, I thought maybe I wouldn’t be accepted because I had never had a bat mitzvah or attended Hebrew school. But Dave informed me that it was no problem; in fact, I was just the type of Jew they wanted, for the birthright mission is to “strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.” I re-read my application to see if maybe there were any errors or parts I left blank. In my personal statement, written in September, I wrote:
Growing up in a Jewish family never meant much to me until recently. I took for granted the celebrations and history that I share with Jews around the world… But since starting college, I’ve been exposed to a multitude of other cultures, especially in a diverse community like Berkeley. Seeing so many nationalities represented on campus has made me more curious about my own roots, and I desire to reconnect with the traditions of my ancestors. Israel represents so much today, spiritually, politically, and culturally, and I’d love to have the opportunity to explore these aspects of the country, and my personal background, even more. What a better site of discovery than Israel herself?
Looked good to me. Needless to say, I was completely befuddled when I met up with Dave. Dan, the other trip leader, was there also, and he greeted me very awkwardly, ushering me into an empty room. We sat down, and a few minutes passed before Dave spoke. With a huge sigh, he began (avoiding eye contact): “As I was perusing your Facebook, I happened to notice that you had some quotes from Maya Angelou and St. Augustine about Jesus, and we have to tell you that if you believe in Jesus and accept him as your personal savior, you are ineligible for the birthright trip.”
I went numb. I stared at them blankly. Then a billion thoughts blasted into my mind, which I calmly expressed one by one: “Nowhere in the application did it ask for an indication of my personal beliefs, nor did you inquire during our interview. Faith was never mentioned in any of the meetings we’ve had! Many agnostics and atheists are going on this trip; people obviously have different philosophical outlooks, so how can you pick and choose whose worldviews are acceptable and whose aren’t?”
They responded: “We realize that it doesn’t seem fair, but on the website it actually does say that no one with a different religious affiliation can qualify.” I explained that I don’t consider my faith a religion, but rather a relationship. They responded that if one professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, he/she is no longer recognized by the Jewish community. “So… are you excommunicating me?” I asked, almost comically. After some more futile back-and-forth, it was agreed that there was nothing left to discuss. With that, I stood up, thanked them for their time, and wished them a great trip. But I couldn’t hold back the tears.
I knew that my disqualification was unjust. They had already accepted me into the program and then were renouncing that decision. But it wasn’t this fact so much that bothered me. The pain from being rejected for who I am far outweighed the disappointment of not going to Israel. Yet strangely, I felt more connected to my Jewish community than ever before. Countless movies about the Holocaust I’d seen, numerous articles and texts about anti-Semitism I’d read, years of Passover prayers I’d prayed, but I never was able to empathize with my forefathers to the extent as when I myself was rejected. For many millennia, Jews have been excluded from the community at large. They were seen as a contaminating, impure presence in European society.
Well, now I was the “dirty Jew.” The difference, though, was that I was being weeded out from among my own. Never had I been ostracized from American society on account of my Jewish identity. But here, in Berkeley of all places, I was estranged from the Jewish community because of my identity with Christ. I was unclean precisely because of my personal conviction.
Now, let me just say that I hear the unspoken words. My exclusion was not arbitrary; I’m sure that if I had professed faith in a pound of cheese, that would have hardly disqualified me from the trip. The hesitancy to allow a Christian to go is understandable in light of the history of anti-Semitism. After all, it was in the context of Christendom that Jews were most horrifically persecuted. But the split between Christians and Jews is an artificial historical construct. Jesus himself was a Jew; the fact that this was somehow forgotten or swept under the rug was no accident. The attempt to erase Jesus’ Jewishness was a huge undertaking of the Church, effectuated in Constantine’s time. This was the only way to legitimate such harsh treatment of the Jews.
In the modern period, anti-Semitism evolved into a more secular movement; Jews became the scapegoat for unsatisfactory material conditions, such as economic slumps. The Nazis wanted to weed out the Jews from society not because of their spirituality but because of their ethnicity. The Jews in charge of birthright, on the other hand, consider my spiritual beliefs as grounds for denial of my ethnicity. The inversion is uncanny. If I believed in karma, I would have to say that this was a most peculiar turn of events—a Gentile being rejected at the hands of Jews? But wait—if first a Jew, could I become a Gentile? Isn’t a Gentile by definition not a Jew? Furthermore, can one un-Jewify herself, even if she wanted to? Is there an actual process of de-Jewification? Or, is it as the local Rabbi at Chabad told me, “Once a Jew, always a Jew”?
“Those in the Messianic Movement are not recognized by the Jewish community,” I was told. But who speaks for the Jewish community? Was a poll taken of every Jew? Do some Jews have more say than others? And even if so, does the majority view always necessarily have to be correct, simply because more people subscribe to it? What is a Jew, anyway?It really depends on who you ask. According to the reformed Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok, Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales and author of over thirty books, Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are just another branch of Judaism. Is identity a given? Or is it produced and constructed?
Despite all attempts to prevent my involvement in the birthright trip, I actually feel that I gained more of a “Jewish” experience from my exclusion than what inclusion on the trip could have afforded me. After all, I remain in exile. If Christians are “not recognized by the Jewish community” and thus cannot participate in the Israel expedition, then the Christian Jew is the last exile. She will never be accepted into the land of milk and honey as a Jew. But no matter what I believe, you can’t change my past; no matter how far I may depart from the beliefs of my forefathers, there’s no erasing my lineage. As one who lends an ear and indeed sings along to Moses’ plea to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” I wonder if the great Prophet would have also said in my defense to the birthright leaders, “Let my people go… to Israel.”
I began this exploration into my Jewish heritage expecting to find answers, but all I got were more questions. What I had long taken for granted, I learned was actually quite contested. My identity is debatable! I never knew I would be the source of such controversy! How can one’s personal convictions have any bearing on her ancestry or on her history? Who can create whose identity? But instead of the Why me? that Jews have asked for centuries, I ask my fellow Jews now, Why NOT me?