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Strauss: Why I gave up life in Canada to fight for progressive values in Israel

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Dafna Strauss in Jerusalem. (Dafna Strauss photo)

I was 15 years old when I heard that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot and killed by a Jew. I was shocked, but a girl who I was with at a Bnei Akiva youth group program felt safe enough to publicly say that, “They shoulda got the bastard a long time ago.”

Her words shook me as much as the assassination itself. That she and I came from the same modern Orthodox community in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill made me question which of us truly belonged. Who had the right views on Israeli politics, and who had the right to have views?

When I was 18, I was studying at a midrasha (religious seminary) in Israel. I had spent a few years as a contrarian – on feminism, religious hypocrisy and what should matter to teenage girls – so nobody was surprised when I poured cold water all over the stories my peers brought back after spending Shabbat in Hebron. To them, armed, radical Jews were bad asses. To me, they were provocateurs.

I disapproved of their vigilantism out of my concern for the state. Israel is a homeland to be managed carefully, not a staging ground for outlaw cowboy fantasies.

* * *

When it comes to Israel, for me, the political is deeply personal. Israel provided a home, community and new identity for my grandparents after they lost almost everything and everyone in the Holocaust. I’m still moved by the idealistic, early-state classics my mom sings along to on the radio on Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzmaut. Old guys in undershirts arguing in Hebrew are my lullabies. I love seeing the culture evolve from the familiar, dusty and scrappy, to the new, cosmopolitan and astonishing.

And I’m deeply steeped in Israeli culture. My childhood friends were the children of shlichim – the Israelis who come to Toronto, and other cities, to teach at Jewish schools. I grew up with walkathons, letters to my cousins in Israel, school assemblies for Zionist holidays and worrying about Ron Arad.

When I was 12, I spent a summer with my grandparents in Netanya, Israel. On Shabbat afternoons, I’d often look through a shoe box filled with my mother’s old photos from her childhood in early Israel.

Israel is where half my background and half my family is. I always identified with it strongly.

Gradually, though, I found myself moving away from mainstream Jewish-Canadian views on Israel. I stayed away from Israel-related community events and often kept quiet in discussions about Israeli politics, but sometimes reminded people that many Israelis criticize their government’s policies in a way that is suppressed in Jewish Canada.

It wasn’t just the conflict with the Palestinians that troubled me – I was also concerned by the religious strong-arming of a secular population, corruption in the government and discriminatory policies in Israel proper.

I’ve always loved my other country and I celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of its citizens. But growing up in Thornhill, it felt like there was only one accepted way to be a Zionist: unnuanced, unflinching approval of everything the country did (except the peace plan). I didn’t know the name for it then, but I was a progressive Zionist and couldn’t find my ideological peers in observant circles in Toronto.

As an adult, I considered living in Israel, but didn’t want to pay taxes that would support the occupation. I hoped that, over time, Israelis would fix the situation, that things would get better in my lifetime and that we’d live in peace in the halcyon days described by all those old folk songs. So I stayed on the sidelines for a long time and watched Israel’s prospects for peace deteriorate from the Rabin days.

Meanwhile, I found myself in a great career, working as a lobbyist for First Nations governments, helping them navigate the Canadian political system to accomplish their goals and assert their priorities. Helping repair the damage my country had done to people was fulfilling work. I just kept hoping for Israel to make a similar turnaround. But things only seemed to be getting worse.

Then, in October 2019, I made aliyah. What changed? First of all, my feelings of responsibility to my people. My work focused a lot on “nation-building.” It’s the long game that First Nations are working at to reclaim their authority and assert their right to make fundamental determinations for themselves – how they express their cultures through their institutions, what it means to have a modern nation embedded with their values, practising their traditions on their holidays, doing family the way they do.

As I listened to my First Nations colleagues talk about the importance of living in your language, knowing your culture, giving agency to your values and passing them to the next generation, and thriving under self-determination, my thoughts turned to my own nation, language and culture, and how it’s expressed in a Jewish homeland.

I began thinking about how important it is to have a place for full Jewish expression and variation; a place that’s perhaps not modelled on one set of Jewish values (because one can’t honestly claim anything is coherent or singular in Israel), but that’s expressive of the many Jewish (and a few non-Jewish) cultures that have co-developed a pretty impressive society together. Israel is that place-in-progress.

We each have but one life, and if we’re lucky, there comes a time when we’re not treading water and we can ask ourselves what we want to do with our lives. My one guide is the campsite rule – leave it (the world) better than you found it.

I had been doing that in Canada, in drips and drabs. I’ve sent indigenous chiefs into Jewish classrooms, organized blanket exercises and hosted “I’m First Nations Ask Me Anything” dinners, to help us understand each other. I co-created an interfaith feminist group, a minyan and a not-for-profit to help create practical ties between Jewish and indigenous communities.

And aside from institutions, I hope I’ve brought good into the world with every gentle interaction, every empathetic conversation, every action that supports a more positive civic culture. All my efforts were being banked to Canadian society, because I lived there. But I started thinking: if Israeli society needs help, why not bank my efforts in Israel?

I also started to see the need for Jewish self-determination from a longer historical view and from a family perspective. I often tuned out when Canadian Jews spoke about anti-Semitism, because it’s something I heard about constantly, but never experienced.

As I matured and took a greater interest in my family history, and read more about all the Jewish history that happened after biblical times and before the Holocaust, I came to respect Jewish resiliency and love the variety of Jewish cultures that have blossomed and survived around the world. I came to realize that the final product created by this mix of every kind of beautiful Jewishness is in Israel, not Canada.

At the same time, a space has begun to be carved within mainstream Jewish-Canadian discourse for expressing progressive Zionist values. So instead of leaving Israel to the radicals and just visiting on vacation, I feel sturdier in my stance, because I’m not standing alone. And as Israeli civil society gets more polarized, and the government flirts with anti-democratic initiatives, the issues become existential. I can’t shut up and I refuse to be alienated from what’s mine.

Many progressives are abandoning Israel, but for all these reasons, I’m doubling down. It’s too important a place to allow it to circle the drain, democracy-wise and values-wise. I’ve left the sidelines because we’ve only got one shot at this thing, our existential group project, and it needs everyone’s participation.

I don’t know what my action plan is and I don’t expect to lead a revolution. After all, now I’m just one leftist living in a leftist oasis in Tel Aviv. Still, I think that just being present in Israel is the best anyone can offer.

When Israelis talk about the demographic war, they mean Arab versus Jew. But I think the struggle is really between populism and an open society. As Israel’s mainstream drifts away from democracy, and Canadian Jews remain progressive on the whole, the solution is a liberal aliyah – because, yallah, Israel needs more Canada.

 

Dafna Strauss made aliyah in October 2019. She lives in Tel Aviv.

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