by Eyal Ben Zeev
Cross Campus Israel Fellow, Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel
When I left Israel the siren still went off every day, all day. Leaving your country in times of war is not an easy thing to do. My then-ninth-months-pregnant sister used to run, very heavily, a couple of times a day to the shelter. I was hoping that she would make it to her due date. Newspapers reported that the alarms and the stress of the war were causing women to deliver earlier than expected.
When the airplane took off, first to New York and later to Chicago, I had no idea where I was heading. Chicago, back in the 60's, was another word for "crime" in Israel. When you wanted to say how safe Tel Aviv was relative to other major cities, you would have said, "it's Tel Aviv here, it's not Chicago." That was what I knew, more or less about the beautiful Windy City. Oh, that and "The Good Wife," of course.
So what makes a 27-year-old man decide to pack up his life and catch a flight to Chicago to work for the Jewish People? I am not sure, I still ask myself these questions, but I can think of a few reasons.
I am a very political person. I have an opinion, and like any Israeli, I believe that if I were the Prime Minister, Israel would solve all its problems in a day. My political tendencies even led me to achieve a B.A. in Middle Eastern History, a degree focusing on the modern history of the whole region. My love for my country, therefore, has not been only an emotional thing; rather an outcome of a long personal and intellectual process I have gone through over the years.
Like most Israelis, after graduating from high school, I joined the army and following my three-year service, I took "The Grand Trip Abroad." Unlike most young Israelis, I did not choose to go to South America, Australia or India. I did discover India but at a much later date, and it became a very significant place in my heart, but when I was 21, I chose to travel to Europe. My European trip started in the UK, specifically in the small University town of Oxford where I visited my beloved cousin. While I was there, the Gaza War of 2008-9 (Operation Cast Lead) broke and I found myself, reluctantly, trying to explain to people why it was happening, and what was the nature of our enemy, Hamas.
Everywhere I went during this time I could see huge protests emphasizing terrible lies about Israel, lies I could not understand how anyone believed. I will never forget a conversation with a PHD student, who did not fail to share her opinions with me. We were sitting in a pub surrounded by many people and she said to me, "For me, talking to you (me), considering the fact that you were just released from the IDF, is as if I am talking to an SS soldier." I was shocked and hurt. However, I am grateful to her, to this day, for helping me to realize the very hard truth about the way my country is perceived and broadcasted outside of it.
I did not fully understand how to deal with this "truth" until I worked as an educator (Middle East History, Arabic). Unfortunately, I and others like me cannot meet all the people in the world for coffee and explain Israel and the complex history that brought it to its present day situation. Even without taking on the whole world and only focusing on the importance of Israel to the Jewish people one might say that the attachment of the Jewish people to the state of Israel is becoming less strong over the years and this is something that is a potential risk to the existence of the country. This, perhaps, leads me to my main reason for coming to Chicago: I can start somewhere, and I should start somewhere.
Since I arrived in Chicago about two months ago and through the coming year, I am serving as the Israel Fellow for the Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel. Together with the amazing staff of Metro Chicago Hillel, I am excited to bring different sides of Israel to our campuses (this year I will focus mostly on: Loyola, DePaul, UIC and Columbia) and hold events and activities to show students that Israel has a lot to offer and by that, expose them to its lesser-known sides. From educational programs about the conflict to speakers on Israeli culture and Birthright recruitment - we are doing all we can, with the generous support of JUF's Israel Education Center, to make sure more people get to know the beautiful face of the state of Israel.
They say that young minds are more open to new ideas - so Chicago campuses, here I come.