For as long as I can remember, I’ve constantly qualified my identity. Israeli-Moroccan, American-Israeli, born in Israel, but raised in California as if I wanted to remove myself from my birthplace, from my heritage, from my grandparents refuge. Constantly putting a distance between my born identity and not wanting to be labeled as an occupier. I remember the disappointment of witnessing the checkpoints, the shame of walking by the Wall. I remember the anger of that pain being intricately connected to my identity, my being. I remember my hate that I will forever be associated with it internally and externally.
Whenever I travel I make sure to keep my identity under wraps unless specifically asked, this is especially true when working and traveling in the Middle East. In the Summer of 2015 I was working on launching a pilot project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. One day one of the young Kurdish translators I worked with, Aram (name changed) came up to me and asked, “You’re Israeli?” Confused as to how he knew this, and feeling the weight of how this conversation could possibly turn, I asked “oh how did you know that?” “Melinda (name changed) told me.” Feeling like I was about to be put in an uncomfortable and questioning position, I prepared to launch into my typical distancing act, of “I’m really a mix,”, “I’m not one thing, a global citizen if you will”—and he interjected enthusiastically with “You’re the first Israeli I’ve ever met! I’ve always wanted to travel to Israel! Our conversation proceeded to flow into what newspapers would I suggest him to read, favorite musicians, how to write his name in Hebrew. This was a complete 180-degree shift of where I thought the conversation was going to go. I was completely and totally surprised. Here was someone who off the bat didn’t see the weight of the occupation on me, and instead wanted to learn about me with no shame attached.
While the shame, anger and utter exasperation of being intrinsically connected to the occupation exists—both mentally and rooted in reality. I can no longer visit family in Israel without making sure that I visit the West Bank, and constantly witness and remind myself of that reality. This experience reminded me that I am more than the sins of my government and those who came before me. I let shame become too strong of a force; my identity does not have to be rooted in that, I can shape it and morph it in whichever direction I choose. I have the agency. There is room for both my desire to make small incremental changes in the world and the droplets of shame that drive me to be better.
To this day Aram messages me every Jewish Holiday to wish me a “Chag Samech.”