Last month I was accepted to the prestigious joint executive MBA at Nortwestern University-Tel Aviv University. As soon as I was accepted to the program, which would give me a chance to live and learn in Israel I was tasked with finding a way to pay for the education. This means applying to scholarships. Some scholarships have interesting prompts like this one for American Zionist Movement.
Sam Litvin On Zionism
I was seven years old playing with my best friend when he said “I’m, Russian.” I replied “me too!” My mother corrected me: “You’re not Russian, you’re Jewish.” It was traumatic, it was a three-letter word that made me “other”. This was the first time I heard the word “Jewish” and I did not understand what it meant. I’ve never heard of a country called Judea or of the people who are Jewish. I looked like all the kids around me and we all had the same customs. I did not understand what it was about me that was Jewish. It took nearly 23 years from that moment to learn what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be a Zionist.
I emigrated to San Diego from Ukraine at the age of ten. Being Jewish in San Diego felt like a side note. I was different from others because I was from Ukraine, not because I was Jewish. This changed in college. In college anti-semitism and war in Middle East made me realize how different it is to be Jewish. To be Jewish meant concern about anti-semitism because it meant facing anti-semitism during the Apartheid/anti-Israel week on campus. Even though the week was supposedly not anti-Jewish, I was marked for mockery and anger not because I was from Israel or they knew that I was pro-Israel, but because they assumed I was pro-Israel because I was Jewish. I came to learn that being Jewish meant people had expectations for me, stereotypes of me and secret thoughts about me. I also learned that I had certain things that others didn’t: a fraternity, clubs on campus, events dedicated to me being Jewish and even a free trip abroad.
Going to Israel on Birthright was my first contact with Zionism (Zion is another word for Jerusalem and the word is defined as the philosophy and ideology that Jewish people ought to live in their historic homeland of Israel as put forth by Theodore Herzl) as I entered a country where for the first time I was a majority. I saw first-hand how varied Jewish people are on the outside and yet how similar we are culturally, religiously and ethnically to each other compared to anyone else in the world. It was in Israel that I came to understand our common history and how dangerous it is to our common future when Israelis fail to see the similarities and focus on the differences instead.
The realization that Jewish people fight amongst each other while the world is attacking Israel and Jews’ right to exist prompted me to travel for a year asking the questions of Jewish people around the world of what it means for them to be Jewish, what it means for them to live abroad and why they continue to live abroad rather than live in Israel. Asking those questions I came to see that Israel is the source of Jewish freedom. Before the founding of modern Israel, Jewish people were at the mercy of their host government. Often their only opportunity was to find another government that allowed them to live but lived in constant fear of banishment and harm. The State of Israel gave Jewish people a choice of where to live, Israel became their protector, their dignity, their freedom, no matter where they chose to reside.
It was this realization that modern Zionism is freedom and that every Jew needs to understand this that made me realize that most Jewish people don’t understand Zionism and how important it is that they be Zionist. Because when they are Zionist, they are not just fighting on behalf of Jewish people in Israel, they stand up on behalf of all Jewish people, everywhere.