Forging my Jewish identity as a minority

Experiences as a token representative

Carolyn grew up feeling the burden of representing all Jews in her actions.

As one of few Jewish people attending my Anglican high school, I was accustomed to being the centre of attention in curious rooms.

While learning about the Holocaust in History class, my peers’ eyes would dart towards me before participating. When we covered Judaism in World Religions, my teacher requested I support his curriculum.

I tried to answer questions and participate in discussions unemotionally, hoping to avoid alienating my audience. In those moments, I felt responsible for carrying the triple weight of religion, culture, and history.

Unlike visible minorities, I have the ability to buffer myself from this burden. Rarely am I identified outright as Jewish and I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a tolerant society.

For anyone who identifies or is seen as “different,” at one point—or many—you’ll be compelled to speak as an individual for a group that’s even more complicated than it is diverse. It doesn’t matter that I’m 19-years-old and can barely understand Hebrew beyond my Bat Mitzvah portion. I shoulder the minority’s burden: the expectation I will knowledgeably and unemotionally explain who I am to others. 

At times, illuminating the intricacies of being different to someone who’s never experienced it is like explaining colour to someone born blind. And even though I preface by saying I’m not an expert, nor am I stating any opinion but my own, I acknowledge these warnings regularly fall on deaf ears. 

What I say is often taken as gospel truth, applicable to all Jews. So I choose words carefully, tread lightly, and try to surmount the impossible task of encapsulating an identity.

What I say is often taken as gospel truth, applicable to all Jews. So I choose words carefully, tread lightly, and try to surmount the impossible task of encapsulating an identity. 

That sounds hyperbolic, but anyone who’s encountered being the sole member of a minority group in a room will recognize the feeling. When I first discussed these feelings with a friend of mine who’s Muslim, the parallels between our experiences shocked me—especially as members of two groups the mainstream media often pits against each other. 

She taught me the universality of the minority experience; thousands of kilometers from where our people battle, she and I understand each other remarkably.

In May last year, my friend, Maya, texted me saying, “This may be offside, but what are your feelings on the Israel-Palestine conflict?”

“Not offside,” I responded. “Israel is important for Jews. When criticism arises, it feels personal, but every country has flaws.”

It’s always frustrated me when, upon confrontation with the subject of Israel, my Jewish peers snap to the offensive. As the only democracy in the Middle East and a homeland for the subjects of the world’s oldest hatred, there are numerous reasons to support Israel. 

I have spent time collecting these reasons as a shield to the anti-Israeli sentiment that rears its head at the most surprising moments. However, when staunch defenders are pressed to legitimize their convictions, the answer is often simply, “I’m Jewish.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this statement. But I’ve watched it baffle and alienate non-Jews. “I feel like I could make enemies by saying I don’t support either the Israeli or Palestinian government,” Maya said. 

This gulf of misunderstanding runs deep. Judaism isn’t just a religion, but a culture where Israel is a pillar. My first day of Hebrew school, the class was paraded to the top floor of a synagogue for a presentation on the Holocaust. Images of emaciated bodies and gas chambers flashed before our eyes while the genocide was described in excruciating detail. The slideshow concluded with a panorama of Jerusalem. 

The teacher fell quiet, letting us sit in the contrast between the exceptional ugliness of what we’d seen and the tranquility of the image now before us. 

“Israel is our salvation,” she announced. “Because of Israel, when we say never again, we know we mean it.”

I was six and just been given more of an education on hatred and its brutality than many ever get. Extreme as it may be, when my friends look to me in bewilderment over the obstinate Jewish attachment to Israel, I tell them this story. 

This experience isn’t unique—it’s the context in which Jews are raised. In a time not long ago and a place not far away, we had nothing. When Israel was established, it became our something. And in the face of a seemingly eternal battle against anti-Semitism, it remains. 

Is being Jewish a sufficient reason to support Israel? Do Jews support Israel as an obligation? These questions feel impossible to answer, just like the questions I and other members of minority groups are asked regularly. In my experience, they’re rarely asked with mal-intent—I’ve been lucky to encounter more open-minded people than otherwise. 

However, being a spokesperson grows tiring, especially when imposter syndrome creeps in and I realize how little I actually know when compared to how much I should know. Minorities rarely get the luxury of making—and subsequently correcting—mistakes. 

To maintain the progress Jews have made in combating prejudice, our burden is to be better, more knowledgeable and more amicable than anyone else, lest you slip up and cause the one step back associated with every two steps forward. 

Since beginning university, I’ve found myself spending increasing time with friends who also belong to minority groups. But I cannot live behind a shield of ignorance, or nestle myself deep enough in the Jewish community to forget there’s a world beyond that doesn’t like or understand me. Just because I can hide doesn’t mean I will.

I often wonder if my explanation to Maya clarified anything at all. I debate whether I have any right to an opinion on how Jews defend Israel. But I’m still trying to make friends with the knot in my stomach that flares when Israel comes up and I wait for heads to turn towards me, forgetting that at university I’m far more anonymous.

Difference is hard, but complexity is opportunity. I’m educating myself about the Israel-Palestine conflict and becoming more empathetic to my friends' opinions. I want to understand the house my bias lives in, its foundation laid in Hebrew school and rooms furnished by my upbringing. I want my friends to keep asking me questions, regardless of whether I possess answers. 

Difference is hard, but complexity is opportunity. I’m educating myself about the Israel-Palestine conflict and becoming more empathetic to my friends’ opinions. 

“How do you grasp grey issues surrounded by black and white mentalities?” I asked Maya. Navigating the minority’s burden is wading through ocean: choppy, tiring, lonely, and sometimes appearing endless. But I now look at it less as a burden to bear and more an opportunity to swim.

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