America is a melting pot of cultures, and it is undeniable that the distinctions setting apart each culture are slowly deteriorating. According to the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, Jews make up approximately 10% of the UCLA population. Surrounded by numerous other cultures, the distraction of the stereotypical college scene and the chaos of fitting into a new environment make it challenging to hold on to one’s Jewish identity. Campus groups such as JAM, Bruins for Israel, Chabad, and Hillel aim to unite the Jewish population in order to alleviate some of the struggles that students face in connecting to a Jewish community that upholds the Jewish cultural and religious identity. Even with these Jewish organizations, it is difficult to maintain to one’s “Jewishness” within the context of a broader American culture that sometimes stands contrary.
Finding a place where being Jewish is the norm and a student doesn’t have to actively seek out a Jewish community can only be accomplished with a journey to the land of the chosen people — to Israel. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, a whopping 42.5% of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. This nation clearly has a Jewish majority — Jews make up 74.6% of Israel’s populace.
“We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so,” stated Theodore Herzl, popular late nineteenth century Zionist.
According to Herzl, Jews have been forced to assimilate into their secular cultures while fighting to maintain their Jewish identity.
Max Nordau, Herzl’s colleague in the First Zionist Congress, expressed that it is the Jewish responsibility to make a Jewish state in order to maintain the race: “It is a great sin to let a race, whose ability even its worst enemies do not deny, degenerate into intellectual and physical misery. It is a sin against them and it is a sin against the course of civilization, to whose progress Jews have made, and will yet make, significant contributions.”
In Nordau’s opinion, it is imperative for Jews to unite in a single region to ensure the preservation of a Jewish identity. Today, this region is Israel.
Although many ideas from the Western world have seeped into Israel, it maintains a strong Jewish culture. Israel abounds in yarmulkes and displays of Jewish hospitality. The country is often described as a “home away from home” by the non-Israeli Jewish visitor — the place where one can take most pride in his or her Jewish identity.
A recent trip outside the country to the Holy Land transformed my conception of Judaism. Even at the airport, right after I arrived, I felt an overwhelming sense of unity. Finally, a place where I — a Jew — was in the majority.
I touched the Western Wall — the remnants of a stone edifice that my ancestors built thousands of years ago. I wandered through the Old City — the city which my ancestors once inhabited. I was not just surrounded by an impersonal history — I was surrounded by my people’s past. These sites bind me to my ancestors, to my Jewish peers, and to the land.
Beyond the history, the pride of Israel’s inhabitants (or those who simply feel the desire to visit Israel) is indescribable. According to Presenting Zionism, Israelis’ pride stems from their successful democracy, their hospitality toward Jewish immigrants, their uncontested strength to hold on to their land, the multitude of technological advancements Israel contributes to the world, and most of all, the personal history and meaning Israel represents to each and every inhabitant.
One of my most memorable and emotional excursions was to Judea and Samaria (otherwise known as the West Bank). Seeing on the schedule that we would be traveling in a bulletproof bus — a reminder of the danger and animosity Israel faces from its surrounding Arab enemies — disturbed me. My only desire was to fake sickness and stay home. Putting my full trust in our guides, I decided to hold my breath, suppress my anxiety, and go on with the group. I still could not promise that I would exit the bus.
Driving through an area that I had only seen in movies, my eyes were fastened to the towns whizzing by us. The towns were in complete disrepair, broken-down cars lined the road, and dilapidated structures dotted the landscape. My captivated eyes noticed a group of young men standing around on the side of the road. As I looked closer, one of them held a rock, approximately ten inches in diameter. He saw our bus, stepped back, and pitched the rock at my window. This was my first true experience of such baseless hatred.
The tension was still palpable as we got off the bus and walked into the city of Chevron. We saw signs that read “No Jewish Entry” and armed soldiers stationed at every corner. Despite the constant threat of violence, 80 Jewish families inhabit this contested area and 200 Jewish families are on a waitlist, hoping to move in when space becomes available. I could not fathom living in perpetual fear.
The tour guide, a resident of the disputed territory, explained her pride for her home. Despite sometimes weighing the pros and cons of raising a family in such a precarious area, she knew that her father, grandfather, and great grandfather all once inhabited this land. She explained that she felt that it was her responsibility to stay strong and not surrender her family’s history and roots to a violent land dispute.
Such a deep and genuine magnetic pull to a land, despite frequent life-threatening conditions, can only be explained by an undeniable pride of identity. After hearing the tour guide’s account, I realized that I embrace the same Jewish identity that inspires this woman to live in fear every day, just to maintain the land of her people. This is the same identity that inspires Jews from every country of the world to join the Israeli Defense Force as lone soldiers, leaving behind everything to fight for Israel. When it comes to Israel, whether one is a resident or not, displays of pride are powerful and pervasive. It is my hope that they continue both in Israel and in the diaspora.