Religion and Identity

A view from Jerash, not far from Amman.

Growing up in Los Angeles, one of the places with the highest concentration of Jewish people in the world, my Jewish identity was never a qualifier for marginalization, obvious identification with minority status, or a source of discomfort generally. Synagogues are everywhere in Los Angeles, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were frequent, I had days off of school for our most important holidays, and I attended Hebrew School. At the same time, my education about Israel as a young child was very simple; I was taught that after the Holocaust, Jews needed a safe place to escape persecution, and that Israel had been rightfully restored to the Jewish people as that safe place. It was a straightforward narrative: brave people protected the Holy Land from people who were unjustly hateful towards the Jews, and landed claimed by Palestine belonged to Israel.

The first time I understood the status of Jews as a minority population was when I came to college. I was shocked at the discovery that friends of mine from the USA had neither met a Jewish person nor had any conception that there is a sizable contingent of Jews living within their own country. But this reframing of my conception of my identity, and the realization that I have to navigate a world in which many people have huge misunderstandings of Judaism (especially as hate crimes against the Jewish community in my own country skyrocket in conjunction with the new administration) is incomparable to the challenges to my identity posed by being a Refugee and Migrant Studies major spending a month in a nation with a massive population of displaced Palestinians.

At minimum, half of the taxi drivers I have met are Palestinians who have been forced to leave their home nation, or whose parents or grandparents once fled. There are stores and restaurants run by Palestinians, and clothes covered in pro-Palestine slogans right near our hotel. A huge number of aid organizations in Jordan that we have discussed, met with, or I have read about serve the Palestinian population, many members of which are impoverished, in urban slums, or in refugee camps (some of whom belong to families who have been in refugee camps for generations – essentially since the founding of Israel). According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are over 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Kingdom of Jordan alone.

I find myself grappling with my religious identity here in ways that I have never been in my life, uncomfortable responding honestly to the frequent questions I get from people asking if I’m Arab or Muslim, and if not, why my skin is so dark for a white American (it is not uncommon for Eastern European Jews to have an olive complexion). People who have been displaced by Israel, along with others who have experienced a complex history of wars with Israel and Israel’s expansion into what was once their land, might be anti-Israel, and this is not unjustified (others, of course, are fine with it). As a Jewish American, I’ve been told for much of my life that my religious identity in a way ties me to Israel, obligating me to support each one of its actions and signaling to others that Israel is where my loyalties lay. When someone tells me that they were once from Palestine, but were forced to leave, my instinctual response is not to identify myself to them as someone whose religion I have been taught can be associated with a government that forced their displacement; the link between Judaism and Zionism that has been engrained in me growing up, regardless of its prevalence here, makes me deeply feel strange in my own skin. I do not believe that the ejection of a people from their land is okay, and disagree strongly with expansionism in Israel now.

However, my mental discomfort is made greater by the fact that I also do not believe Israel should not exist. As evidenced by the Holocaust, before Israel, there was nowhere that would take in Jews; we are historically an unwanted peoples. Further, to eliminate Israel would be to create another mass displacement, and in this current political climate, the odds of millions of Israeli Jews being absorbed into other nations, especially if there were nothing to be gained politically from taking them in, is around zero. Right now, forcibly displaced persons are unwanted peoples, almost universally. The way that Israel’s policies have developed, and the way the founding of the nation was handled are things that I cannot support.

So, I have had to figure out how to handle the reality of my religion in these circumstances. The conclusion I have drawn is that I neither need nor deserve the ability to handle my interactions surrounding issues of religion and Palestinian displacement with mental comfort and ease. This sort of cognitive dissonance that I cannot accept is what forces me into a space of thinking more critically about my opinion on and role in these matters, and will ideally prevent any sort of complacency. While I might be torn ethically, as a person, I am growing.

Sara Evall is a T’19 Undergraduate. She has been a participant in Duke Engage Dublin, 2017 Duke Immerse, and was a Kenan Student Research Assistant. 

All posts by