American, Iraqi, Jewish: So It Makes Sense for Me to Live in Israel
Issue #67, April 2004
Be'er Sheva, Israel
I was slurping minestrone soup at an Italian restaurant, laughing with a friend, when her cell phone rang. There had just been a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. More than 20 were dead, about 100 wounded. Almost without skipping a beat, my friend hung up her phone, went back to her food and picked up our conversation where it had left off. It was just another day in the land of Israel.
Yet I had a hard time looking at my food, let alone tuning into our conversation. I could not stop fantasizing about everyone in the restaurant stopping, holding hands and praying. All of us crying, screaming and clinging to each other. I wanted something. Anything but the routine of more dead and disfigured bodies.
That bombing and so many others remind me that nowhere in Israel is safe these days. I have sat at cafes, ridden on buses and walked down streets where suicide bombers have struck. One of my friends was on a bus behind a bus that exploded. Friends of friends have been blown up. It was perfectly possible that a bomber would strike the restaurant where I was sitting.
At times like these, I am acutely aware that I do not need to be here. As an American with Israeli citizenship, I have a choice. Although I live here permanently now, at any given moment I can pick up the phone, book a flight and pack my little derriere back to the safety of a quiet, tree-lined street in Northern California. Unlike the scores of working-class and poor Israelis with no option to leave, I can smell a ticket with my name on it. But each time tragedy strikes, I decide once again to stay.
Of course, if playing it safe were the primary force driving me, I would not have come here in the first place. I arrived at Ben Gurion airport in August, just weeks after one friend was nearly shot as he prepared to board an El Al flight to Israel from Los Angeles, days after another friend had a close call at the Hebrew University bombing in Jerusalem, amidst a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks across the Jewish state, and with Iraq threatening to retaliate against Israel if America bombs Baghdad.
Not that I was some GI Jane fearless type, mind you. As the date for my departure to Israel drew closer, and the attacks on Israelis grew more frequent, I became somewhat of an emotional wreck. I had an increasing sense of doom, as if flying to Israel meant imminent death.
And yet, I did not cancel my ticket. I had visited Israel so many times I couldn't keep track, and despite the mounting threats and violence, I still felt strongly that that was where I wanted to be. In a desperate, down-to-the-wire phone call, a close Israeli friend helped me to understand why. "If you scheduled a trip for, say, Hawaii and a war developed in the region after you purchased the ticket, you would cancel your trip in a nanosecond," he said. "But this is not Hawaii. It's Israel. It's home." He was right. Uncannily, he then described precisely why I felt deeply torn: "For Israelis, the decision to stay or return to Israel is easy. This is where we live. We're here, period. You, however, are Israeli on the one hand but American on the other. You don't have to be here. You have an option. Which makes the decision to come or stay a very difficult one."
My identity is indeed torn: I grew up in the United States, but for me, America is largely a place of life experience and nostalgia — my home, but not the place that reflects my core identity. I do not see myself in American imagery, holidays, rituals or history. I guess it comes down to the fact that my primary identity is that of a Jew, and that for me, being a Jew is inextricably intertwined not only with Israel, but with Iraq. That's where my father came from before fleeing in 1950 to Israel, where he became a citizen. In 1958, he settled in the United States. As his daughter, I am an Israeli citizen.
My connection with Iraq is more complicated. I have never been there, but I sing and pray in the Iraqi dialect of Judeo-Arabic, the language of Jews indigenous to the region. I follow the Iraqi traditions for all Jewish holidays. I have an Iraqi accent when I pray in Hebrew, although I have purposely unlearned sounding Iraqi when I speak, partly because nobody here could understand me, and partly because of ridicule. Still, the fear of Middle Easterners so common in America now doesn't exist in Israel — so long as you're a Middle Eastern Jew. If I were Iraqi and Muslim, it might be a problem, given Iraq's threat against Israel. But because I'm Jewish, I'm seen as belonging.
That my connection with Iraq is filtered through a Jewish lens surprises most Americans. When they think of Jews, they think Poland and Germany, bagels and cream cheese, Goldsteins and Rosenbergs. But the first Jews came from Mesopotamia, the land that is today Iraq. They returned to that land in 586 BC, when the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed the Kingdom of Judah — the southern region of ancient Israel. After demolishing the kingdom and leaving it in ruins, the Babylonians took the people of Israel, as captives, again to the land that is today Iraq. My family remained on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the next 2,500 years until 1950, when the modern Iraqi government forced the Jews to flee as refugees.
With a history like that, Iraqi Jews are as authentically Iraqi and Jewish as you can get. Nonetheless, throughout my life, neither the Jewish nor the Middle Eastern communities have been keen on accepting us fully. In Jewish communities in America, I experienced contempt, ridicule and discrimination based on my heritage and religious traditions. I was expected to subsume my identity in favor of some kind of a pan-Jewish yearning for my European roots. What European roots?
Nor did I have easy entree into the Middle Eastern community of America, which was dominated by Arab Muslims and Christians. I was expected to erase the narrative of my family and community in favor of an anti-Israel, pan-Arab reality. Repeatedly, I received the message that I would be warmly accepted as an Iraqi only if I checked my Jewish identity at the door.
A big part of my desire to go to Israel this time was to return to the place where Mizrahim like me — Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa — are the majority Jewish population, where I do not have to explain my identity or search far and wide for community. Until the mass Russian immigration here in the 1990s, Mizrahim were close to 70 percent of the Jewish population. Now, we are just over half.
I was also eager to visit my elderly Iraqi-Israeli relatives. When they sought refuge in Israel, most of them settled in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. Ironically, when Saddam Hussein attacked Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, many of the Scud missiles aimed at Tel Aviv landed in Ramat Gan. And so for some of my relatives' neighbors whose homes were destroyed, Iraq took everything they had, twice in a lifetime. I wanted to get my family's stories on film before it was too late.
I also sought to increase access to film, books, music recordings and other resources of non-European Jews through my organization, the Jewish MultiCultural Project. And I wanted to complete an advanced Hebrew program, so that I could fully immerse myself in the literature of Jews across the globe. In general, I just wanted to be in the place where the international Jewish story would be all around me.
In addition, I was hungry to return to the land, people and culture that free my soul. I longed to see my Israeli friends, because I missed them and because I was so worried about them. In the end, despite my fears about living in Israel now — with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging and Israeli fears of possible attacks by Baghdad in a matter of weeks or months — my decision to move here came down to this: love, celebration and an affirmation of who I am, all of which revolve around life. My reasons not to go involved fear alone — a reason revolving around death. So through the terror and the tears, I chose life. But not until the shores of Tel Aviv appeared on the horizon, outside the window of the British Airways jet, did I know I had made the right choice. My whole body shook with emotion.
As I stood at the curbside of Ben Gurion airport, waiting for a Thrifty shuttle bus to take me to my rental car, a deep sense of knowing flooded my body: This time I was not a tourist. Two months later, I returned to Northern California long enough to pack my life into 37 cardboard boxes, and moved to Israel for good.
During the month I was back in California, I would frequently wake up thinking, "Loolwa, you have seriously gone off the deep end." Then I would spend the next hour panicking, gingerly stepping among boxes muttering, "What am I doing?" An hour or two later, with anxiety mounting, I would stop packing and sit on my bed in tears.
And I still can be found in tears. The decision to move to Israel has not gotten any easier in the three months since I arrived for good. Just because I am facing my fears does not mean they are not with me. Only yesterday, I read about people's spinal cords being severed by the shrapnel loaded into suicide bombs. A part of me keeps yelling, "Get out of here and get out of here quick!"
But where else can I live in an apartment building in which Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia and Iran are all together — and with a Tunisian synagogue directly across the street?
With Mizrahi identity reflected in my surroundings, I am free to focus on finding a place within my community, rather than educating strangers, over and over, about my community's existence. What's more, here I have camaraderie and support for my efforts, instead of having to struggle alone. I still can pursue the interests I had in the United States — practicing yoga, singing in a rock band, teaching self defense — but now these activities connect me to my community instead of taking me from it. Last week, I taught a self-defense workshop to a group of female teachers at a local school. Half or more of the teachers were Mizrahi. In all the years I offered self-defense workshops in the States, I do not remember even one person of my heritage in the groups.
"You seem a lot more relaxed," a Berkeley friend said when we spoke on the phone recently. Indeed, I feel a lot more relaxed.
This is a terrifying and heart-breaking time to be living in Israel. But here I am rooted in the multicultural Jewish story. I can't guarantee that love for my people will be strong enough to keep me here through the daily terror. But for now, this is home.
Loolwa Khazzoom is editor of "Behind the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out" (Seal Press) and the director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project. Find out more about Loolwa at her website: http://www.loolwa.com.
Photograph from the Jewish MultiCultural Project.