“Hi, this is Karen from the Jewish Agency. I just want to let you know that we have your Proof of Jewishness. Would you like us to mail that to you or fax it?”
I’d been officially proven Jewish. That was possibly the most surreal phone conversation of my life. My identity had never been defined so succinctly before, or in such a casual tone of voice. “Jewishness” as Karen called it, has never been a big part of who I am. Sure, it’s my ethnic and cultural heritage, but I’m also a secular third-generation American. I like long walks on the beach, languages and crossword puzzles. I’m friendly, musical, and grumpy in the morning. I’m from Woodstock, I’m a progressive, and a fan of Glee. But for these other pieces of my identity I don’t have stamped letters of proof.
The reality of life in Israel is that the only way I could obtain a work permit was by being Jewish. I was lucky in that way, and because I want to be there doing the work that I was doing, I took advantage of that luck. To get certified as Jewish, I had to provide the Jewish Agency, a group that facilitates immigration of Diaspora Jews to Israel, with a letter from a rabbi vouching for my “Jewishness” and my birth certificate. They looked me up, stamped my paper, and I was set to go.
That piece of paper is symbolic of the system of separation and occupation that is plaguing that land and its people. The separation is institutionalized and the segregation is in your face every day. Each group has separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate lives. In Haifa, there are three large supermarkets within walking distance of my old apartment. One is the Arab supermarket, one the Russian supermarket, and one the Jewish supermarket. On my street, supposedly the “model of coexistence” because it is racially mixed, there is still the Jewish café and the Arab café across the street. Sure, there are exceptions, and a few locals who cross the lines, but it is often only the foreigners who are able to socialize regularly with both groups. Again, I was very lucky in that way. I am thankful that I had both Israeli Jews and Palestinians at my Thanksgiving dinner, and grateful for the time I spent with friends from both groups.
My ability to transcend the lines that are so boldly drawn in Israeli society is a blessing, so naturally I resist labels and boxes. I’m not ashamed of being Jewish, but since I still haven’t quite decided what being Jewish means to me, or in what way I relate to my “Jewishness,” I very much resent someone telling me they proved it.