A Tug of Two Continents

by Maayan Ravid

Last week, I planted a flower in my “hood” – in the Neve Sha’anan community garden in South Tel Aviv. It was part of a project that targets Jewish residents of the neighborhood living alongside multitudes of African asylum seekers and diverse foreign workers who have flooded the neighborhood over the past five years. The influx of foreigners, along with institutional neglect, has turned South Tel Aviv into a dark corner of the world. A concentration of poverty, crime, lawlessness, and deteriorating infrastructures threatens all residents and fills the air with the smell of sewage and loss of human dignity. After spending seven years as a community activist with Sudanese asylum seekers – uprooted, unsettled, on the move – it feels good to plant a flower in solid ground.

I wondered if the flower could survive and grow: Will it be able to stretch its roots in an environment of fear, hate, and separation? It made me think of my own roots – how far do they stretch? How strong are they grounded? What environment will strengthen and enrich them? In which direction will they grow?

In another corner of the world, on the wall of my grandparents’ home near San Francisco, hang many family pictures collected over the years since they emigrated from Germany, settled in California, and created a family some 60 years ago. One of these pictures is of a baby staring deeply into the eyes of a Sesame Street doll. Written on that picture in my mother’s handwriting is a reference to Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship – encouraging personal and non-instrumental relations between people.

Almost 8,000 miles away, there is another home, decorated with African statues my paternal grandparents brought home from Guinea West Africa where my Grandfather served as the Israeli Ambassador. That home is on the Israeli kibbutz where my father was born, where my grandmother wrote the following reflection at the end of her first year of work in a socialist worker’s training camp: “I shall always remember my first planting. The one that ‘broke the ice’ between me and the garden. For the days before it were hard and doubtful…. We created a dream of a sun-kissed land, and the road to it was full of song. So easy to memorize songs of loving the land, to paint beautiful pictures and dream! We loved the land in our hearts and souls, but how far was our love from this reality, from everyday mundane things, from the little things that require such a great mental strength.”

I grew up between these two dreams, these two homes. All my grandparents emigrated from Europe – uprooted, unsettled, on the move. One couple moved to Israel and joined their peers in the founding of the state and the kibbutz movement. The other set emigrated to the United States, narrowly escaping the encroaching horrors. Those who stayed perished.

Two Zionist households: Both raised their children on Jewish and humanistic values. My mother chose to make aliyah and join the socialist, egalitarian kibbutz movement with my father. Then, in the late 1990s, my father was offered to start an Israel Center at the Jewish community of San Francisco, and what was once a nostalgic, inherited connection became a rich, if temporary, American Jewish experience.

My roots, stretched across oceans and cultures, are strong. They’ve been nourished on a common ground of Jewish values – a shared language of organic Jewish humanism and compassion. In my California High School days, I often thought about the philosophical ideas of Martin Buber and the kibbutz ideals of a socially just society. I returned to Israel and joined the IDF, with vivid images of what life abroad looks like for 18 year olds – without military service, security threats, or national concerns. I served two years in the military, saddened by our reality, concerned about the future and compelled to serve at the same time. After completing my military service, I turned to civic society, pursuing social justice in Israel with a sense of urgency.

So much of modern Israel is troubling: its relations with its neighbors, the widening gaps within Israeli society, and its treatment of foreigners seeking refuge. My sensibilities are challenged, what I assumed were the ethical underpinnings of my homeland unsettled. I am a person in movement – estranged from the country that helped shape my life. Can anything positive grow out of this tumult?

In the last month of 2013, the treatment of African Asylum Seekers in Israel has reached new extremes, and I write these words baffled by our new reality. Israel opened an internment facility in the desert for African Asylum Seekers. It is run by the prison authority, there are head counts 3 times a day, and detainment there is indefinite. Summonses have been distributed to people to pack up their lives and report to busses that will take them to the camp. In the facility they are encouraged to sign “voluntary return” forms that will allow the state to deport them to Eritrea and Sudan, where the UN and world community declared there is a serious and immediate threats to many persecuted by their governments. They are denied access to fair and transparent process of Refugee Status Determination, afforded to all by international law. Never in my life did I imagine that I would see this happening in Israel. Never could I fathom that the country founded on a call for justice, on providing a shelter to refugees and on Jewish morals, would treat others in such a way.

In Genesis 12:1, God says to Abraham, “Go forth to the land I will show you.” Songwriter Debbie Friedman wrote of that verse, L’chi Lach, that it is a call for action, to leave one’s home, to be a blessing elsewhere. In the same parasha, however, there is also a call to return and face the challenges at home. What can I learn from this and which path should I chose? In current day Israel, can I pursue the path my grandparents started, and stay loyal to my core ethical and Jewish beliefs? Am I to leave? Where am I to make my home? Where am I to make a difference?

Roots are tricky this way: We may know from where they emanate, but we never know which way they will grow. I sprouted in New York, grew strong in Israel, came to bloom in San Francisco, and I am increasingly weathered in the Tel Aviv of 2014. What now?

Maayan Ravid is in a master’s degree program in political philosophy at Tel Aviv University. In both the San Francisco Bay Area and Israel, she has worked on initiatives and for organizations promoting human rights, multicultural dialogue, and bridge building focused on the developing world and immigrant populations.

An earlier version of this essay appears in Sh’ma January 2014, as part of a larger conversation on being “settled and unsettled;” published with permission.