Friday, April 17, 2015

Israel/Palestine and Japanese/Jewish/Christian American Identity

This blog series has been almost a year in the making, precipitated by my visit to Israel/Palestine in May 2014 as a small group leader on the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program's Mosaic of Peace trip.

For years, I have been wrestling with the implications of my identity, my nationality, and my religion when it comes to the region.

My identity: My father’s family is white Jewish, originally from Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, perhaps even Russia. Some fled pogroms and other persecution, and maybe others just wanted a new life. Each family member has her or his own unique story. Under the U.S. definition of race and ethnicity, I am considered ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish of the American persuasion just as much as I am considered ethnically Japanese American. Both ethnic groups have very diverse ways of living out those identities, and while I’m not a unicorn, I might be a more extreme example of that diversity of ethnic identity. I’m aware that I’m not considered Jewish by people who make and enforce the rules (also known as the halakhah… and that would make for another blog post). Suffice it to say that my mother is not Jewish, I was not raised Jewish, and I did not convert, so I’m not considered technically Jewish, despite its shaping power in the U.S. context. Then enter general confusion of people who believe “Jewish” is a religious identity the way “Christian” is a religious identity. (FYI: it’s not equivalent.)

My nationality: I’m a U.S. citizen. My national identity in relation to Israel/Palestine is wrapped up in a number of challenging facts. The U.S., along with other western nations, refused to allow entry to Jewish refugees en masse during the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. The U.S., along with other western nations, took part in the United Nations of creating the state of Israel and its boundaries, which included partitioning of Palestine and displacement of Palestinians. The U.S. gives huge amounts of foreign aid to Israel, and has special diplomatic relations with Israel (such as disproportionately using its veto power on the UN Security Council in favor of Israel), for any number of reasons, including Israel’s geopolitical location. Much of this foreign aid goes to stuff I just don’t like, such as Israel’s military-industrial complex. To be fair, I don’t like that my money goes to the U.S. military-industrial complex. I’m equal opportunity when it comes to my beliefs around the war machine.

My religion: Christianity is a relatively new religion in my family. I’m a third-generation Presbyterian on my mother’s side, and my dad converted to Christianity. Without a lot of things happening, like migration, persecution, exposure, ideological shifts, and deeply personal experiences, the people in my family wouldn’t be Christian. The religions of my family (many of whom did not convert) include Judaism and Buddhism. I am aware that my being a Christian is a wonderful and powerful thing for me, but it also connects me to some very horrible religious histories of religious persecution, torture on religious grounds, Christian imperialism and colonization, forced migration, forced conversion, exploitation justified by religion, and a persistent theological legacy that sees Christianity as the improvement upon Judaism, or the replacement religion. My church, and most mainline/liberal churches do not believe in this theology (in fact, my church has entire papers and statements against it), but it is pervasive among American Christians, and I have heard my share of Christians say anti-Semitic and theologically offensive things about Judaism and Jewish people. Christianity has not always been the friend of Judaism, so I find myself a little embarrassed sometimes to explain that while my father’s family is Jewish, I am a Christian minister. I’m not ashamed of being a Christian, but it can be awkward in the context of relationships.

I didn’t want to go to Israel/Palestine, for years. I knew it would be uncomfortable. For a couple of years in seminary, I was part of an organization of people in the Chicago area, mostly Jewish, who advocated for the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Whatever my family meant to impart to me, I as a Jewish and Japanese person ended up with the sense that as historically marginalized people, it was more important to have a civil society that protected all minority rights, than a society that looked just like me, or worshiped like me. It is that “gaman” in me, the part of me that tells me to endure, and that part of me that knows it is my obligation to disagree with the power structures when necessary. Power structures are sometimes wrong, so it is my duty to speak up for the rights of others wherever I can.

I went to Israel/Palestine knowing I would not understand either Palestinians or Jewish Israelis, because I do not understand the deep longing for a homeland. Home is wherever I am, wherever my family is, because as a biracial person I expect I will not fit in anywhere. As an American from the west, whose ancestors were immigrants and not indigenous, I do not have roots deeper than the early 1900s. That is not to say I lack empathy; I can identify with longing. I just know I am incapable of fully understanding displacement from land held by generations. I am incapable of fully grasping what it means to be a refugee descended from refugees, like the camps of Palestinian families who have been living with refugee status since 1948. Having never been a religious minority, I am incapable of understanding what a relief it must be to be a Jew in a Jewish state, to go from a persecuted religious minority to being in a country shaped around that religion.

To know I couldn’t understand any of these things, and to know that as a U.S. citizen, I am responsible for the actions of my country, has been horribly frustrating.

I also know discussion of Israel/Palestine can be virtually impossible. I haven’t even really tried to have the discussion with most family and friends, because I have seen them end badly within my own church family. The arguments about how we as a church should speak on Israel/Palestine, or how we should relate, have caused enormous discord and conflict. It is important, but it rarely goes well. In its worst moments, it becomes a perfect storm of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, bad Christian theology, classism, and white supremacy. But more on that another time.

For your enjoyment, here are some pretty pictures. Because even in horribly complicated and death-dealing situations, sometimes there is beauty.

Below, some of the grounds of the Baha'i Temple and Gardens in Haifa.

Food. Because I love food.

The Sea of Galilee.


  1. So well written and thoughtful as always! also your pics totally got me in the mood for lift (pickled turnips) like whoa. going to make and eat some asap. so you see, your trip had overall good results and you can stop worrying about all this stuff now. ;) Love the blog.

    1. What's the recipe for lift? We can make it at the new place. Glad the overall results were good. Why worry about international conflict when you can eat? Thanks for reading.