Elephants in the room

7 Nov



There are a few topics that I feel like I’m ready to talk about and should talk about – mainly, I’m talking about some of the elephants in the room. Topics like do you feel safe in Israel? What’s it like being a non-Jew in a Jewish state? What are Israelis really like? You get the idea. I’m not going to talk about all of them at once otherwise I’d have a mega post and you’d be bored out of your mind. Instead, I will pick a topic once in a while and tackle it. Today: what it’s like being a non-Jew in Israel. I want to preface this with – these are my views, based on my own experiences. I have put a lot of thought into this topic and how to approach it without coming across as judgmental. I hope I was successful in this goal.

For the most part people are surprised to discover that I’m not Jewish. That’s because the natural assumption is most people who come here are. Usually, as soon as I identify myself as non-Jewish, the next question is – “Are you super religious?” Again, this is a natural assumption given there are many pilgrims from other religions who come from all over the world in order to be in the Holy Land. This question then leads to the inevitable question of “Well, what religion are you?” Honestly, I never really know how to answer this question – even at home. I grew up in a house where my parents took me to many different churches over the years. I often went to church with friends as a child too and it never mattered if it was Baptist, Catholic or Mormon. The church that I have chosen to attend the most as an adult is non-demoninial. It’s Christian based but it does not have a label and I like that about it. So when confronted with the religious question, I usually just say Christian and leave it at that.  

I am studying for a Master’s degree in Holocaust Studies. When people hear what I’m studying – they are even more stunned that I’m not Jewish. During our first two days, we had a symposium where the main goal was team building. When it came out that there were four of us in the program who weren’t Jewish – the reaction was priceless. They could not believe that three Catholics and a mutt like me would ever be interested in this topic. This feeling of shock was quickly overtaken by absolute respect. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has gone out of their way to thank me and tell me how amazing it is for a non-Jew to study this topic. This includes people outside of my program too. People are very genuinely curious about this “quirk.” I’m still overwhelmed and honestly, kind of bothered by this reaction. I tell people all the time about how many people I know who are also deeply interested in this topic – none of them Jewish – and they are always shocked to hear this. I’ve tried to explain to people that you don’t have to be Jewish to be interested by a time where humankind & common decency took a left turn to horrific ends. I just have to remember that many people – regardless of their background – see life through a different lens. It’s interesting to realize that just by being here, I’m not only educating myself but also Israelis to a broader world view. 

I will say there are times when I am involved in a conversation or listening in class and I have an opinion about something but I don’t feel comfortable expressing it given that I’m not Jewish. For example, recently we had a reading for one of our classes that focused on the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. This author looked more on the whole of the community and even went on say that there were many victims during the occupation including innocent Germans who were murdered after the war, just for the crime of being German. This lead to a conversation about rather identifying multiple victims, especially Germans, “downgraded” the victimhood of Jews. I did have an opinion about this topic but I did not feel there was a way to express it without coming across badly. I waited until another classmate, who was Jewish, to express similar ideas. Then I felt comfortable saying something. Is this fear of speaking out a product of growing up in politically correct America?  Or is it just an abnormal sensitivity to an issue that only exists in my mind? I’m not really sure. Do I really feel like my classmates would have a bad reaction to my opinions? No, I think for the most part our group is a “safe” place to speak freely. It is my own confusion about this gray area that keeps my mouth closed. Given that I am just finding my feet here – I don’t feel comfortable yet in being able to judge a situation for openness.  

I tend to freely ask questions about anything Jewish I don’t understand and so far, most people are more than happy to help educate me. I have never once been made to feel uncomfortable for asking a question on that topic. The few bad reactions I’ve faced have been focused on my not speaking Hebrew and that has little to do with my faith. 

Overall, I have to say people are respectful and open to the fact that I’m not Jewish. They are genuinely interested in hearing my thoughts about being an “outsider” here, especially since so many people are immigrants themselves and were outsiders in their home countries just by being Jewish. I’ve had some fantastic conversations about that. At times, I do feel like a bit of a curiosity. There is a security guard who works the security checkpoint at the dorms that cannot get over the fact that I’m not Jewish. “Your name is Mary Ruth and you aren’t a Jew?? Are you sure? Jesus’ Mom was a Jew with that first name!” I take his gentle teasing in stride – it doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel like I can speak for anyone that’s in similar shoes but for me – I have no problem being a non-Jew in Israel. It has lead to many interesting discussions, some curious reactions and overall it’s been eye opening in a good way.

Do you have any topics you’d like me to cover? Any questions I haven’t answered yet? Let me know in the comments.


4 Responses to “Elephants in the room”

  1. Sabrina November 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    I was really surprised to hear that Israelis/Jews there don’t expect “outsiders” to be interested in learning about the Holocaust. Would they be shocked to hear that there are non-religious Germans, like me, who have read extensively on this topic outside of school? It makes me sad to think that the folks you meet assume that non-Jews don’t care about what happened. I feel that Germans – right or wrong – still grow up with a certain sense of shame about our own past and not an ignorance to it. Very fascinating topic!!

    • Mary in Haifa November 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      Yes, it is very surprising to realize that most people here are stunned to learn that others are interested in this topic. And yes, most would be shocked to hear of your interest. At the same time though, once I put it into the perspective that most people here have/had family members who are survivors or know survivors, hardly a day goes by that this topic isn’t discussed in the news or donations being solicited on street corners to care for aging survivors – of course they will only view this event through their “lens” of being a Jew. It’s the only lens they have. My experience has been that most people who spent a significant amount of their life outside of Israel – tend to have a broader perspective. We do have one person that grew up in Germany but he is Jewish. He lends the German perspective but it usually comes from a place where he suffered persecution as a child. Again, that’s his lens. Hopefully, that makes sense.

  2. Karyn McNeal November 8, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    Another fascinating post, Mary!! Keep ’em coming!

    I’ve often wondered if my interest in the Holocaust – specifically how the German masses came under the hypnotic influence of Hitler – stems more from my interest in sociology or because I am 50% German. I often wish I could speak to my late Grandma (who lived in America in WW2 but was not born here) about what it was like to be a pure German family in the heartland of the USA during WW2. What were their thoughts and internal conflicts? What kind of persecution did they receive, if any? The psychology/sociology of the influence of Hitler is of much fascination to me.

    As far as future topics suggestions go, I would be interested in hearing about the impressions that Israelis (or anyone else, for that matter) have about Americans. It seems like the two reactions we hear of most in the US are: (1) the world depends on the US like a “big brother” to protect the world and spread democracy; (2) the world thinks Americans are arrogant, obese and lazy. What have you experienced in your travels of this?

    Thanks so much for doing such a great job on your blog! I always love the update! 🙂


  1. Abroad Blog of the Week: Mary in Haifa | Global From Home - November 14, 2012

    […] NV. 4. Her blog is wonderful, thought provoking, and really highlights the cultural experience of being a non-Jewish American grad student in Israel. Now that Mary has been in Haifa for 6 weeks, we’ve been able to exchange emails and thoughts […]

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