ISRAEL — I was 10 years old when my parents took me to a celebration of Israel’s 50th Anniversary. I saw men and women dancing and singing, inviting the audience in a small Russian town to rejoice with them. I remember being startled. I was always told that Israel was an ancient nation. I read about what happened there thousands years ago in history books, novels, and in the Bible. How can it be 50 years young? My parents couldn’t or didn’t want to explain.
I was 12 when a group of neo-Nazis was following me on the street yelling racial slurs and threats. I ran home and was scared to leave the house. I did not want to tell my family what happened but I also did not understand why they picked me to harass. I never announced in public that I was Jewish. How could they know, I thought. How could they know?
After college, I moved to Israel and applied for a citizenship there. Not because I had strong Zionist inclinations, but because I felt confined by the political regime in Russia. It wasn’t just anti-semitism, but also my career that was constantly bothering me. I wanted to be a journalist but all major media outlets were government owned, heavily censored, and strictly controlled. I didn’t feel free in my country and I had an option to escape so I took it.
At the time it never occurred to me how much privilege I had and how easy I had it. I was allowed to vote, work, and move freely in a country I just moved to, while Palestinians who were born there were denied many if not all of those things.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I moved to the United States, that I made my first Palestinian friend. Her name was Salaam and we had a lot in common. We both liked to travel, we were the same age, but what was strikingly different was our experience in Israel-Palestine. I remember talking with her about Israel’s Independence day and that weird celebration that I didn’t understand when I was 10. She explained that the same day is commemorated as Nakba, the day of the catastrophe for Palestinians. It was then when I realized that my happiness and comfort in Israel was at her expense. I was given the homeland that was taken from her and her family. She never blamed me for anything but I felt this immense guilt.
It took me moving to Israel and moving away to begin to learn and try to comprehend the complex histories of Israel-Palestine, to meet Palestinians and learn their stories, and to question the history I was taught.