Some say a path to a man’s heart, and perhaps even his soul, is through his stomach. A little over a year ago I walked by the local Hillel Foundation at The Ohio State University on my way to class and noticed a sign in the window: “Bagel Shop – Open.” I was running late to class and I needed to grab a quick lunch. I wasn’t Jewish, so I had never stopped in before, but I went in out of curiosity and necessity.
The chef at the cafe welcomed me. “Is it okay if I eat here if I am not Jewish?” He said that was fine, “…and don’t worry, they are not in the business of converting people around here.” I had always been someone active in learning about different cultures and perspectives on the world, on the conclusions made from one’s search for truth. But today, I had just been looking for something to ease my growing hunger. Originally, it was a hunger for food, but once I was inside I asked more about Judaism. The chef informed me that he was not Jewish himself, but that others would be willing to help me out.
My experience there was really positive, and I began to come back each day for lunch, and sometimes dinner. Each time, I would have regular conversations with the staff. In time, I even began attending some of the programming events put on when invited. It is here that I will say that engaging the non-Jewish community on campuses is crucial. Many others, like myself before my growling stomach, often don’t think we are welcome to visit the Hillel. We are not Jewish, we say, and many of the issues affecting our Jewish student peers are outside of our radar.
It was the next semester where I began to ask my Jewish friends about their religion. The topic of Israel came up in passing, and I asked to learn more. While I was not Jewish and thus ineligible for Birthright, I had many Jewish student peers tell me that I had to visit sometime. Knowing that I was a veteran of the U.S. military, they told me that every Israeli citizen is drafted to serve in the Israeli Defense Force. The more I learned about Israel, the more intrigued I became. I began doing my own research, and found a people who had finally been given a land that has meant so much to them historically, and a welcome relief from the countless examples of abuse and anti-semitism that Jews have suffered from, and continue to experience even to this day, in lands all over the world. One day I asked a staff member at the Hillel about opportunities to visit Israel for a non-Jew such as myself. He explained a range of options, and after doing my research, I found out about the work of the Zionist Organization of America and the upcoming trip to Israel. I felt this was the best fit for my interests, in terms of truly understanding the nuances and wide range of issues Israel, and the Jewish people. So I applied, and was accepted.
Having been on this trip for a little over 4-5 days, I am already amazed at the experience. I see a land that represents one of few, if not only, multicultural, inclusive, democratic nation state in the Middle East. I have met Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze — all Israelis, and just as much a part of this nation as the next. I have seen a people who have truly enlivened a land, and made it fertile from the sweet of their labors, and unfortunately, even from the drop of their blood, all to secure a place for themselves, a people who have historically lived here in this land for thousands of years prior to previous conquests. It is safe haven for the Jewish people, and home to countless other religious faiths and peoples.
The thing that stands out the most to me, as a non-Jew, yet still very much a Zionist, is the sense of sacrifice and commitment all of the citizens of this country possess. In America, and thankfully so, the vast majority of the citizenry do not have to serve in the military. But in Israel, everyone must serve upon adulthood at the age of 18. This leaves myself, and many other veterans of the United States in the minority, and with a minority experience — one of having put their sweat, and at times blood, behind the sense of security that is needed to security freedom and democracy in our nation. It is here that I find my strongest connection to the Israeli people. In Israel, there is no concept of veteran, as everyone simply serves.
What I want to bring back to my peers on campus, especially my fellow veteran students, is that Israel is a land that possesses far more than a safe haven for the Jewish people, but an inclusive, free, democratic country in a region of the world that is rife with terrorism, oppressive dictatorships, and laws that often violate the human rights of minority populations — Jews, Druze, Christians, Muslim alike. It is not an issue of Palestinians vs. Jews, or Palestine vs. Israeli; it is a battle against moderate, democratic ideals versus a culture of fear and hate that seeks to destroy those who do not subscribe to the extremist ideologies of violent and powerful minority of the Muslim world.
It is a land, with a people, that must be experienced for ones self. It possesses a beauty, a sense of justice, of morality, of dedication, and a sense of pride that is contagious, and can even make one envious. If you are someone to stands for democracy, tolerance, inclusion, multiculturalism, and justice, it is a no brainer on who you would support in the Middle East, loud and often misleading rhetoric and propaganda aside. Nothing can replace the teacher that is personal experience.
As for me, I stand with Israel. I hope you will join me too.
Jonathan W. Gill