There is a memory that I have that is one of my most vivid, though it happened almost twenty years ago. Even then, the event was shrouded in a darkness that in my recollection has only intensified with age. On this night I was asleep on the top bunk of a bed that I shared with my camp counselor. Sara had just ended her tour of duty in the Israeli army and as was tradition amongst many soldiers at the time, left Israel thereafter to embark on a lengthy vacation throughout North America and Europe.
Like many former soldiers, Sara spent her summer as a counselor at a modern-orthodox, Jewish-American sleepaway camp. Modern-orthodoxy is one sect of Judaism, and its major identifiers include strict religious adherence combined with secular occupational training and varying degrees of “blending in.” Many sects, including modern-orthodoxy, are bound by loyalty to the biblical idea and thus to the established state of Israel. At summer camp, loyalty to the state was the undercurrent to all of our activities, and these feelings spilled over into our relationships with each other. Friendships formed at camp were certainly lifelong for some and were further heightened by the togetherness we felt while participating in countless rituals that would, as I grew older, seem increasingly strange.
On this particular night, I stirred in my sleep as someone spoke loudly. A figure in the doorway bellowed, “Yallah yallah everyone up!! Out of bed!” We were a bunk of about 15 girls, and each of us stood up bleary eyed, half confused, half excited for the chance to talk with each other at such an unexpected hour.
“We’re going for a walk,” said the counselor, one of our favorites, a man in his young 20s who had also recently finished his tour. We happily and anticipatedly pulled our sweatshirts over our heads and received our instructions.
“We’re going for a walk in the woods for about twenty minutes,” the counselor told us. “We’re going to pretend we’re on a raid. There will be a key word. Every time I say ‘spaghetti,’ get down on the ground and be silent. Because when you are in the army, whatever the keyword that your commander chooses is what you have to listen for, it means the chance of an ambush.”
I felt confused, mostly because the idea of yelling “spaghetti” with my friends in the middle of the woods seemed altogether ridiculous and embarrassing. There was also an inner confusion that had something to do with my lack of knowledge about raids and ambushes, though these were ideas that my counselor identified with so naturally that it didn’t occur to him to explain them to a group of pre-teen girls.
At this point my memory takes a slight turn, but the outcome is the same. I forget if we were blindfolded, but we were instructed to form a line, each camper with her hands on the shoulders of the next. We did so, and stepped outside into the pitch, rural Pennsylvania darkness and began our walk through the woods. The darkness was thick and we couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of our faces. So we walked carefully, and in total silence.
Then it came -- the first holler of spaghetti. Everyone screamed and crouched down, unsure of when to make the next move. After a few moments of silence, our favorite counselor once again shouted out, “Yallah! Everyone keep moving!” This scenario happened a handful of times, though by the second instance all of the excitement we had initially felt was gone, replaced by feelings of nervousness as we continued our slow crawl through the forest.
After some time, the thicket of trees began to thin, the darkness dissipated and we found ourselves in a clearing. Even now in my memory, the brilliance of the stars that night and the light they cast onto the clearing is magnificent. Collectively we gasped as we looked out and realized that every bunk in the camp had been taken on the same mission. There we were, hundreds of us, confused and bewildered one moment, then happy and relieved to be with each other the next. The swell of emotions was intense for everyone, and in the middle of the night, we sat in a giant circle and sang the familiar songs of our youth, the ones that spoke of our birthright, of our claim to the land of Israel.
Twenty or so years later, this event stands out in my memory unlike any other. I have told the story many times, often to demonstrate the zealousness of zionism and its effects on Israelis and American Jews, so physically removed from a space they have been taught to think of as home.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, which were couched in modern-orthodox upbringing and schooling, no day would pass without mention of Israel. Israel was a place, it was a person, a parent, a framework by which all similarly-minded American Jews were meant to live their lives. Though some sects of Judaism, like Hassidism, reject the tenets of zionism, most are characterized by a fervent adherence to the idea that all Jews are entitled to the land.
As young kids, it was mostly our parents who would talk about aaliyah, a Hebrew word-turned-cultural movement that literally means “ascent” or, moving upward. The striking connotation of the word didn’t escape me even then. I remember families of friends always talking at the shabbat table. “Should we move to Israel? What about our homes here? Can we have two homes?” Some of these families did actually keep two homes, and they moved between them. Growing up, our family friends, the Millers, spent a year at a time between Staten Island and Jerusalem, their children attending two different schools, the family leading two different lives. In America, their refrigerator proudly displayed the image of Mayer Kahane, a militant figurehead who in the 1990s spearheaded a violent movement of Israeli settlers into the West Bank. An extremely controversial figure on the international level, and in Israel as well, he was revered and respected within many American zionist homes.
Teaching of zionism was so important to my family that I was sent to a high school yeshiva an hour away from where I lived in New York City. By the time I was a teenager, talk about aaliyah shifted from a family topic to one that was popular amongst my peers at this school. After graduation, a sizable handful of people in my class moved to Israel, sidestepping college and other plans to do so.
It was around this time that I began to question. The Jewish history we learned during morning hebrew classes was too celebratory, too saccharine to be true, and the tone didn’t match up with what we simultaneously learned in our afternoon secular history classes. A factor so minor as studying for AP examinations illuminated a lot of the history that I never learned in school.
Over the following years I would come to realize the full extent of my false education. This education was characterized by glaring omissions, focusing instead on mass produced symbols of the flag and storybook pioneer characters to tell the victor’s side of the story. Our teachers never spoke of zionism as a militant philosophy, and I went a long time without ever hearing the word zionist or knowing its definition. Instead the institutionalized allegiance to the state was taught as a movement comprised of “kibbutzniks,” a kind of culturalized Israeli hippie concerned with the physical land as an agricultural entity. Only later would I learn the insidious nature of this figure, who in actuality represents the scores of people who would, over decades and via force, remove indigenous Palestinians in order to transform the land into a fruitful, flowering center of industry and capitalism.
The questioning phase that started in high school led me on a weird, lonely and insular path that continues today. It is one that is filled with self education, a relearning of history, and a break with large parts of my past.
My father’s grandparents survived the Holocaust as young children and traveled to the United States where, without resources, possessions, or the wherewithal to do it, they started a large family. Each of their children was affected differently by their parents’ post-traumatic stress, something they managed while also struggling to care for their children. By and large their efforts did not go over well, and I view my father as a victim of a structural mindset convinced of humanity’s rottenness. He joined the Israeli army at 18 and was stationed in Lebanon during the wars of the early 1980s.
The story of my father’s family is not unique. Trauma spans cultures, borders, and time and has enduring effects on anyone present within the bubble of violence. If one can conceive of multiplying this situation by hundreds of thousands it is possible to understand the ways in which the collective memory has been greatly skewed by generational PTSD, the fear and the grief of Holocaust survivors and their children.
Some of these same communities, before, during, and after World War II, established American yeshivas, private schools that taught hebraic as well as secular studies. Over the next decades, these schools, technically privatized but in actuality bound together via strong community networks, would espouse an educational philosophy and curriculum that was at its core focused on teaching children to love Israel.
The night of the fake military mission at camp demonstrates the nuanced nature of our particular type of indoctrination. Certainly at camp, as well as at school, no mention of Palestinians was ever made. We did not talk about it, but the enemy was implicit in our every mention of Israel. Behind every am yisrael chai (a daily prayer meaning “the nation of israel lives”) was the implicit knowledge that am yisrael could only live if Palestinians and those non-chosen were removed from the land. The more the iterations of collective positivity towards Israel were mentioned, the more implicit the natural aversion towards a barely spoken of enemy was assumed.
This particular brand of programming, of overly focusing on the positive, has had a very insidious and difficult-to-detect effect on its victims, who are now unable to comprehend the brutality of the Gaza massacre, and who whittle away at their collective consciousness to try and find answers. A sentiment I see expressed by people I went to high school with is one of support for Israel, one that fails to mention this inherent support of institutionalized genocide… (Though increasingly, by keeping tabs on Twitter and other sources of citizen-produced journalism, I’m realizing that the word on the ground is increasingly hateful towards the Palestinian people. This outward display is much more new to me, yet I sadly believe it to be a more honest iteration of the same sugarcoated ideology that I was raised with.)
Last week I was surprised to see a message from someone I went to high school with in my inbox. We were never quite friends, hadn’t spoken in ten years, and so because of these factors, I was even more surprised by his tone. His message was a response to a link I had shared on my profile page.
His demand caught me off guard for a few reasons. From what I remember of my high school self, I was quiet about my political opinions, even more so as I grew increasingly skeptical of the propagandistic teachings that most of my peers seemed to eat up unquestioningly. So, he couldn’t know how I was then and was only assuming that I aligned with zionism. In part due to our indoctrination, just the thought of aversion from the norm produced in him such feelings of incredulousness that he felt the express need to reach out to me.
The conversation solidified my desire to write this piece, because his tone and attitude demonstrate a particular perspective that I find increasingly difficult to comprehend. And now that war wages, the disastrous effects of colonialist ideologies come to light. This is why a debate about the existence of an obvious genocide can take place over a picket line or in a chat window, because a decades-long proliferation of zionist ideals within middle class American communities has given way to a generation that is blinded by a sense of false loyalty.
At a point in this conversation during which neither mind is changed, I use the word “brainwashing” to describe our 15 years of education and he says,
“Please stop hurling this ‘you've been brainwashed’ accusation (which may or may not be true).”
I tell him he’s right, “brainwash” is kind of unfair to use as a trump card during a proper debate. Then I think, what other word can I possibly use to describe such a weird phenomenon, one I experienced and have spent years working to escape? It’s hard to do. Ideology really has a way of getting into the core of a person. Feeling a strange mixture of exhaustion and whatever it’s called when you’ve given up on something a long time ago, I offer him a read of this piece when it’s done. He says sure he’ll read it, and I close my computer, feeling as if I’ve gained nothing.