Allow me to take you to a place where civilization was born and time seems to stand still. The sound of many people, talking excitedly in various distinct tongues. The smell of exotic spices and warm bread fills the air. You can taste them. And the people are the best part: Tourists in brightly colored garb taking endless photographs as if trying to take the land home with them, hawkers barking at them and trying to sell them cheap trinkets, religious men of all faiths walking briskly to higher destinations and children dancing and laughing as they swirl through the streets.
This is my ancestral homeland.
This is the land of Israel.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, and later Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I have always enjoyed living in the United States. A land as the Founding Fathers envisioned it, America represents many of the great aspects of the world. I feel fortunate to be American, yet it is not quite the sum of all my parts. My body may be here, but my heart is in the East. Every day I yearn to return to eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.
Unfortunately, I am a 12 hour plane ride away most of the time. Sitting in a classroom in Wisconsin, Israel seems farther away than ever. Geographically, Israel is located on the western extremity of Asia, right on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, creating a fantastic climate not too dissimilar from Greece. I cannot remember having bad weather on a single day there – even when it rains, it is gentle and much appreciated by the Israeli farmers. The geography of Israel is incredibly unique in each region – the north is hilly with lakes, forests and rivers and the south is mainly a desert. The coastal plain takes up the west of the country, and the eastern border is dictated by the Jordan River.
Israel is a nation that quickly became a global leader in innovation. Israeli scientists are world-renowned for being among the very best, creating cures and new inventions daily. Israel is also the only country on the planet to increase the number of trees every year, marking a clear Israeli passion for the environment. In California, due to the intense drought situation, Israeli desalination technology is being used to maintain the state. Israeli students are very intelligent and due to the mandatory army service become dedicated and strong. I have firsthand seen Israeli progress – on the Syrian border in the north, you can tell where the division is because the Israeli side is lush and green, and the Syrian sector is barren and brown. Make no mistake – this is not because the Israeli land was better off in the beginning; Israeli settlers had to work very hard to “make the desert bloom,” as the first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion often stated.
Personally, my favorite aspect of Israel is the diversity. Walking down the stone streets of Jerusalem, you can hear every language from Hebrew to English, Russian to Arabic. In a way, Israel is similar to New York City, where the human palette of skin tones seems to be endless. Israelis have an incredibly unique look due to their blended heritage. However, if you don’t look the part, it can sometimes be difficult to fit in. In the busy shuk (marketplace), I remember my tan skin and knowledge of Hebrew coming in handy, as I would always get a better price than my fairer, clearly American friends. Israelis have a habit of taking advantage of Americans – this past summer, my friend bought a kippah (skullcap) for 50 shekels, which is equivalent to 15 dollars for a little piece of cloth.
Beyond citizens themselves, there is an astounding amount of tourists from nearly every country in the world. Politicians, celebrities and holy figures alike all eventually make their way to Israel. On my first trip, when crossing a street, I nearly got hit by Pope Francis in his car. Also, Justin Timberlake and Michael Bloomberg happened to be there at the same time as me but I never ran into them.
Some of the best times in my life have been spent in Israel. My favorite memories are collected from days wandering through the country. I have not yet found a place where I can feel nearly as content and at peace than I do there.
By this point, you are probably imagining Israel as a beautiful safe haven, and wondering why there is so much conflict in the region.
However, it is not all light and happiness in Israel.
Israelis face terrorism every single day from various threats. Furthermore, the United Nations does everything in its power to stop Israel from continuing to exist. Many Americans aren’t aware of the violence in Israel due to a lack of it being covered on mainstream media.
Because everyone seems to know my faith, I am constantly bombarded with questions about Israel and the Palestinian territories. People accuse me of supporting a genocide and of eating Palestinian babies. People tell me that Jews are a white invasion in Israel and should not be allowed to be there. People ask me why I am complicit with starting up a second Holocaust; didn’t I learn my lesson the first time? People attempt to convince me that I am on the wrong side of history, that I am encouraging murder, that I am evil for supporting Israel.
But they are wrong.
They do not spend a second researching the conflict. They do not know it like I do. They do not begin to understand the situation. They just do not know.
I am fighting for peace, like many others. I fight for justice in the Palestinian territories. I fight for an end to terror in Israel. I fight for the young children of Israel who do not understand why they are being targeted just for being Israeli. I fight for the diversity of Israel, for all the synagogues and churches and mosques and rabbis and priests and imams standing side by side. I fight for peace in the Middle East, once and for all.
“Od lo avdah tikvahtenu,
Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim”
“Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old.”
May the hope for peace in Israel be realized speedily in our days.
Yoni Altman-Shafer, 16, of Fox Point, is a junior at Nicolet High School.