Milk and Honey

Jordan Rabinowitz
5 min readOct 17, 2023

I have a memory from the Birthright tour I took in the summer of 2011 that’s been replaying frequently in my head recently. It happened early in the trip when we were still in the Golan Heights and hadn’t yet ventured to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Southern Israel.

As the then-Op/Ed page editor for the school paper, I volunteered to blog about the trip for the Binghamton Chabad website, so all my thoughts and reflections about Mayanot 357 as it happened have been crystallized on the internet. I went back and read what I wrote about this particular memory when it was fresh:

After the hike, we made our way to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border and listened to Arie — an American-born Israeli citizen of 50 years — talk about his experiences in the Israeli army, on the kibbutz, and his feelings on the many political and religious conflicts Israel has endured and is still enduring. Arie was nothing if not incredibly passionate and earnest in his beliefs. I would be lying though if I said his speech wasn’t divisive. One of our soldiers, Shir (who has certainly been closer to the action and has a deeper understanding of it than me) described Arie as a “radical,” though she undoubtedly agreed with many of the basic Zionist ideals Arie conveyed, as did the rest of us.

I don’t remember the specifics of what Arie said, but here’s what I can confidently tell you with 12 years of reflection that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t with only 12 hours of reflection: Arie was a virulent Islamophobe and I’m a more than a little embarrassed that mine and Shir’s cynicism of him and his toxic ideals only went skin-deep. I think Taglit Birthright wanted to expose us to the Land of Milk and Honey’s full spectrum of ideology, and admittedly Arie was much, much further to the right than most of the other Israeli speakers I remember hearing from on the trip. But that spectrum seemed to start and end at Zionism. To be a Jew was to be a Zionist. Israel was footing the bill for us after all, right?

The foundation of my Jewish eduction prior to my time in Israel is important context for outside observers. Growing up a Jew in a mostly white, significantly Jewish suburb of New York City in the 2000s didn’t leave a lot of room for empathy for Palestinians or the rest of the Arab world. Post-9/11 jingoism raged, and Islamophobia among the young, Jewish, and socioeconomically comfortable was rampant. As a teenager you knew there was so much more nuance to the complicated state of the Middle East and the world than what was presented to you, but you also didn’t want to deny the odd bond you felt to your people in unity against this whole other monolith of people who you were taught wanted to destroy your homeland. Community was tribalism and vice versa. You were raised and conditioned to believe Judaism and Israel were two words for the same thing, that an attack on one was an attack on the other.

Only into adulthood did you come to learn, really only through self-education (and for this particular individual, Anthony Bourdain) that it was not anti-Semitic to be critical of Israel. In fact, you felt emboldened to fully understand and come to terms with the fact that your spiritual homeland was perpetrating many of the same crimes against humanity towards Palestinians that had been used to oppress your people for millennia. And yet, a part of you still felt like you were forsaking your upbringing and religion and ancestry for even thinking it.

But now we’re here, and the legitimate fear that many Jews feel — including yourself — is that the lines between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism are growing dangerously blurred (let alone the fears we have for the safety of our friends and family in Israel, present company also included). You’ve long since examined why the staunchest pro-Israel faction in the United States are hard-right Conservatives, and how that makes you feel uncomfortable as a Jew aghast at the slow-rolling massacre in Gaza. But now you’re trying to make sense of the staunchest anti-Israel progressives, many who would sooner place blame of the murder of 1,200 innocents on the sins of their government, rather than take a moment to acknowledge the overnight massacre of Jews happening right in front of them. You feel betrayed by a movement with which you identified, an ideology to which you’ve anchored your hopes for a better world. You feel at sea.

Then you remember that Muslims and Arabs in this country also feel legitimate fear because American masses, Jews among them, are dangerously blurring the lines between criticism of Hamas and Islamaphobia as Israel lays siege to Gaza, depriving its people of basic human necessities, destroying livelihoods and lives. What can you say? How can you say it? Too many people on social media seem to have figured that out, despite the fact that you’re sitting here struggling to put together a semi-coherent summation of your thoughts because you don’t think there’s anything to say other than this all fucking sucks so much. Innocent people do not deserve to be slaughtered. Nations do not deserve to be occupied and starved. Countries have the right to defend themselves from terror. Governments and armies do not have the right to massacre civilians. People should not live in fear because of their spirituality. The aggressors are the victims are the aggressors are the victims. All of these things are simultaneously true, and as a progressive American Jew it is hard to sit with.

I love being a Jew. I love belonging to a community that makes up only 0.2% of the world’s population, that we are 16 million among 8 billion. I love that I am alive in spite of the cosmic improbability that my ancestors should have survived to ensure my existence. I love that I have now further ensured the perpetuation of the Little Religion That Could through my son. I love that I have spiritual guideposts that shape my ethic regardless of my belief in the existence of God. I love that there is a place on Earth that is our spiritual home. I love that it is a beautiful country full of beautiful people. It makes my stomach churn that these people live in danger and fear. It makes my stomach churn that this country is also capable of the same atrocities to which its existence is purported to stand in opposition.

This is all so complicated and sad. I guess I’m just here to say if you’re also looking for the needle of empathy in the haystack of despair, you’re not alone.