by Erica Lyons, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Jewish Life magazine
It’s true. My Zionism was made in China. I grew up in New Jersey in a town that was nearly one third Jewish. Everyone on my street was Jewish. Half my soccer team was Jewish. In Synagogue, my Cantor infused every message with Zionism, as did his wife and children. To my parents this was pure mishugas.
My parents loved Israel for the refuge it provided for those other Jews who were desperate for a place to go. They spoke of how it saved Holocaust victims who had been turned away at every port in the world. They sent money to aid the Russian Refusniks as they looked toward Zion. They answered pleas to help African Jewish refugees, settling in Israel, who also had nowhere else to go.
It was a refuge for others, not for us. Our family legends were of settlers who made it to America from Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution, with the Cossacks at their heels. We were living in the promised land of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States. On Passover we didn’t conclude our Seder with, next year in Jerusalem. “Next year in Boca Raton,” we would shout, tongue-in-cheek.
I went to Hebrew School, Jewish camps, Jewish youth groups and as a family we collectively helped raise money for Jewish Federation. The Bnai Brith Guide to University was our bible; only schools where Jewish students numbered in the double digits were relevant to us. So I ended up at school in New York where nearly 20% of the students were also Jewish. There was a Judaic Studies Department and a kosher kitchen for students who needed it. I was well on my way on the path to finding the future Jewish doctor of my grandmother’s and mother’s dreams. He was right here in New York, not in Israel plowing the fields of some kibbutz.
To my grandmother’s dismay, I never did find that Jewish doctor and instead had ambitions of my own. I went on to law school. In law school, I was president of the Jewish Law Student’s Association. I navigated through Jewish Washington D.C with ease in my Jewish world. I went on to complete a fellowship program with the Anti-Defamation League in New York.
My Zionism remained in my pocket, unexamined and unused. I never was asked, in my Jewish world, to prove my love for Israel. I never put a label on myself nor saw the need to. As a Diaspora Jew, I was fairly comfortable with the distance my family carefully formed between us and Israel.
It was not until recently, well into my thirties, that Zionism even entered the conversation. I finally made my first (and second and third) trip to Israel. We now alternate summer holidays from Hong Kong between the United States and Israel.
As editor of a Jewish magazine based in China, at every cocktail party and public event, I am asked to defend Israel (at least I can now say that I have been there). This conversation always seems to immediately follow the customary, “How long have you lived here and what do you do?” I explain that while I am Jewish, I am not Israeli. I have begun to understand that to most people here there is simply no distinction between the two. The terms are interchangeable.
Recently, at a dinner party, I was questioned about the legitimacy of the settlements. I tried to again draw a distinction between a Jew and an Israeli. I tried to explain that I was certainly not an Israeli government spokesperson. I looked at the Indian and Chinese faces around me, waiting for a response. I was a spokesperson. I began to give a carefully self-edited response. One Indian gentleman interrupted, “Are you a Zionist?”
Again, silence. I had never been asked the question before. What was his definition of a Zionist? What was mine? What impact would my response have? Everyone continued to stare, glasses of champagne in hand.
I took a deep breath and a drink. “Yes, of course I am. I am a Zionist,” I offered hesitantly. My husband glanced over just as the crowd dispersed. I tell him later that evening that I was put on the defensive. I felt funny about my declaration, unexpected and still unexamined. It is weighty and stays with me.
I hear my seven-year old daughter tell her friend that Israel and the US are her homes. I ask her why Israel. “Because Israel is the homeland of all the Jewish people,” she unabashedly responds. Being raised as an expat in a foreign country means her understanding of home isn’t bound by a definition of where you live, it can’t be. It is a place you return to, somewhere that is somehow part of you.
A few weeks later, it is one in the morning (not late by Hong Kong standards). I am out with an eclectic mix of merrymakers from around the world. There are locals and expats- importers, manufacturers, bankers, lawyers, diplomats. I am asked what I do. Moments later, I find myself engaged in a debate on the “flotilla incident” with a diplomat clearly on the other side. He is polite but firm. He is a true diplomat. It is his job to represent his country.
“I am a Zionist,” I declare. I offer no apologies.
Erica Lyons is the founder of Asian Jewish Life- a journal of spirit, society and culture for and about Jews in the Far East. This article first appeared in The Jewish Press.