Proud to be an American
Roughly one-third of one percent of the United States Army is Jewish. In less than a month, my sister will be completing the necessary Army basic training and joining that small percentage. She is strong, both physically and mentally, and extremely brave and determined. She trained vigorously for many months, barely spoke to family and friends outside the base, and was absent from family occasions, including Rosh Hashana and my mother’s birthday. My sister has made many sacrifices, and I could not be prouder of her dedication to our country.
I say “our” with purpose. The most common response to hearing how my sister will be spending the next four years is, “that’s so cool!” followed by, “well, why did she pick the American Army?” -- implying that, were she a good Jewish girl, she would have picked up and moved across the world to fight for a country in which she does not reside. It is not a malicious inquiry, but rather a seeming lack of patriotism enveloping the Jewish community. I usually respond with, “Why do people join the Israeli army?” in an effort to relay to the person that what one Jew might feel towards Israel, my sister feels towards America. This sentiment has not isolated her from the Zionist movement, rather it has redirected some of her passions from Israel to America.
Truthfully, it is a lot more understandable for American Jews to draft into the IDF and, while the reasoning for each lone soldier is unique and embodies inspiring passion, rarely are we surprised to hear the numbers. Roughly 1,000 Americans currently serve in the Israeli army. From my high school graduating class of 63 students, three are currently serving, and from my post-high school gap year program, three committed to draft as well. The Jewish education system does a great job instilling within us a Zionist passion and urges us to do more than just celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in our hometowns or spend our summers in Israel. People are willing to put their lives on the line and spend time away from home to protect our sacred homeland, and I cannot applaud this enough. However, what does this say about our patriotism? Is having Israel pride a paradox for feeling proudly American?
Patriotism and Zionism have become mutually exclusive to the extent that some communities discuss America as if it is inferior to Israel and merely just an incubator for our lives until we are ready to make Aliyah. While many people do move to Israel, an immense amount choose to remain in America, building families and lives here. Many of us were born here, and have thrived on the ideals of democracy, including voting and participating in community service activities driven to improve the lives of citizens. As adults, we continue to take advantage of American society by attending graduate school, buying our own homes, and visiting the beautiful national parks, the sunbathed beaches, or the many historic monuments. We are politically active; paying taxes, attending rallies, and even lobbying in Washington D.C. And yet, were someone to ask us where our loyalties lie, many would proclaim that America is just a temporary convenience, but when the right time comes, they will move and settle in to the beautiful Israeli communities. The cognitive dissonance is apparent in our intrapersonal relations within ourselves. We fend off any American pride we may feel and channel it towards Israel by waving flags, donating money, and providing school programming.
Living in America undoubtedly comes with challenges that can blur the lines between appreciation for living here and resentment for being made to feel unwelcome. It is hard to sing America’s praises about freedom of speech, progressive society, and advanced technology and education, while also attempting to combat forms of antisemitism and intolerance, whether on secular college campuses or blatantly in our hometowns. Yet, the proper response is not to abandon America, but rather to fight for change while upholding our devotion to the land.
The notion that we can be both Zionists and Patriots is imperative for Jews if we are to continue being proper, upstanding citizens. The time has come for us to stop undermining our roots and start appreciating the positives that American Jewry has given us. While the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, is being sung, let’s not forget the meaning behind the American National Anthem and what it symbolizes. Get involved in your communities to better living conditions and look out for people -- not only fellow Israelites, but people born and raised in America. With Thanksgiving approaching, now is the time to show appreciation to our country.
This year, Thanksgiving will be celebrated without my sister present. I will see her the week before for her basic training graduation, but she will be spending the family-oriented holiday with her new clan, the privates and drill sergeants -- all amazing people of whom she speaks highly and who take care of her while her biological family is miles away.
While the holiday used to revolve around delicious meals and quality time spent together with family, this year it takes on a whole new meaning. I now feel connected to the Americans making sacrifices for this country, giving me a stronger sense of patriotism. This year, I am thankful that my sister is strong enough to endure the grueling, yet fulfilling path she is embarking on. I am thankful that I go to school in one of the greatest cities in the world, New York, with the endless supply of amusement, entertainment, and opportunities. I am thankful that I live in a country where freedom of religion and freedom of speech are upheld and that I am privileged to practice my Judaism and Zionism openly. Provided with the opportunity to be loyal to both my religious and secular homeland, I hope to build a bridge between the two and not to take either for granted.