The Politics of Belonging in Israel

By Jocelyn Goldberg

I spent a lot of time last year talking with a close friend about what it means to feel at home. Even for those who grow up in one place, a sense of belonging in not guaranteed. What historical, familial, and social forces encourage someone to feel “at home”?

Since arriving in Israel two months ago for a yearlong fellowship, this is a question that has been raised over and over again among my friends. In the Diaspora, Israel is advertised as the “Jewish homeland,” not only due to its existence as a Jewish state, but in that Jews should be encouraged to come here and feel at home. What does it mean to go somewhere where I’ve never lived, where I don’t speak the language, and don’t feel a sense of belonging (especially when there are so people that feel incredibly at home on this land who are not allowed to make it their home, read: Palestinians) and make this my home? For me, there is a major disconnect in this concept, which has reinforced my sense of belonging firmly in the Diaspora.

I grew up in the heart of New York City, strongly identifying as both a Jew and a New Yorker. Growing up, I understood these identities were inextricably linked. I was proud that my community was not only represented in number, but in New York institutions, like the Katz’s Deli, where I did not question that I belonged in New York as a Jew.

I am fascinated by how one’s upbringing influences a sense of belonging here. I was lucky to grow up in a place where not only did I not feel ostracized or alienated for being Jewish, but in a place where Jewish identity was celebrated and deeply ingrained into the fabric of the city where I was raised. Globally and historically, the Jewish community of NYC is certainly an exception to the rule, but is still an important case study in what it looks like to grow up in a vibrant Diaspora Jewish community (it’s also important to recognize the forces at play in those Jewish communities that make those communities visible, make resources accessible, and grant power, namely: white, class, and social-economic status privilege). I’ve talked to lots of people here who feel incredibly at home here in Israel, perhaps because they were the only Jew in the community where they were raised, or they experienced anti-Semitism, persecution or discrimination for being Jewish where they lived. Conversations of what it means to feel at home here are incredibly politically charged, especially when many Diaspora Jews have been able to make their home here due to the forcible displacement of Palestinians.

On a larger scale, it’s important to recognize what political forces encourage some people to feel at home in some places, and not in others. The concept of home stretches far beyond the lived reality of where one grew up, to include the emotional attachment and sense of belonging experienced in that place. In Israel, this concept morphs the ideological and Zionist concept of home, into a political and literal one. Moreover, it is the notion of home that drives so much of the sentiment surrounding the occupation, where both the Palestinian and Jewish narratives revolve around this concept. It is always important to remember the intersection between place and feeling. Even more so, it is important for Jews to look critically at how feeling at home, or lack there of, in the Diaspora influences our involvement in Zionist policies in Israel. In doing so, I want to continue to listen to personal narratives of belonging, in the Diaspora and in Israel, as a platform for Jewish anti-occupation activism.

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