Identity Conflict

It is strange to be back in Israel: a mix of displacement and deja-vu. We're here only for a ten-months sabbatical, but it feels as if I'm slipping back into a life that I could have had.

When I left Israel to study in the US, I didn't intend to settle there permanently, just as I had never intended to stay in Israel when I first moved here from Amsterdam when I was eighteen. I don't know how it is for other people, but my life seems to be a chain of haphazard decisions that have led me to places I never expected to be. And in each of these places I am a different person.

A few weeks ago, for example, when the war was still raging, my sensible American self had deep reservations about our decision to go for a year to Israel.  From the peaceful safety of Vermont, it seemed insane to take our children to a country as tumultuous and conflicted as Israel. But as soon as I arrived here, my irrational Israeli self emerged, and I remembered again how much I love the sights, the sounds, and even the trash and the problems of this land. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to just stay here permanently.

I can never count on my attitudes staying constant because, like Zelig, my personality always adapts itself to its surroundings. And maybe it is like that for everybody. Others just don't move as much as I do.

Talking about identity, I started a new project: I am trying to create a picture of Israeli society by photographing and interviewing random people. Every day, as I go about my normal activities, I approach a few people for a photo portrait and a short interview about their identity and their hopes and expectations for the future.

Most people are ready with a narrative. They can tell me where their family is from, where they belong, and what their purpose in life is. But what's really remarkable is that all the people I interview are living completely unrelated and contradictory realities within a few square kilometers of each other.

An orthodox French Jewish immigrant is awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and the gathering of the Jews at the end of days, while a young man from Tel Aviv plans to move to the US because he is fed up with the growing influence of the ultra-orthodox in Israel. A left-wing Israeli Jew holds on to hopes that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be resolved peacefully with a two-state agreement, and just 500 meters away I interviewed an Israeli-Palestinian Muslim who declared that he opposes the Jewish state and that there will never be peace until all the Palestinians can return to their ancestral villages. A wealthy high-tech worker told me she flies out to Europe almost every week for work, while an Ethiopian Jew told me he has never left Israel since he arrived here as an 8-year-old in 1984. A young Palestinian woman talks to me about peace and forgiveness, and a Libyan Jew whose parents immigrated to Israel in the 1950s tells me that Arabs can't be trusted.

This schizophrenia of worldviews almost matches my own identity confusion.

Talking to all these different people, I realize I'm most comfortable when I don't have to choose an identity but can just listen and try to understand other people's experience.  

But, of course, it's a luxury not to have to commit to an identity. Ultimately, when the stakes get high, there is no neutrality.