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By Marla Baker, member of JRC’s Israel-Palestine Working Group

I am outing myself as a life-long, if currently anguished, Zionist. I have a love for the vivacity and diversity of the people and culture of Israel, unique in all the Middle East; and even as I watch, with despair, Israel’s government go far astray, I’m also heartened by the proliferation of Palestinian Israelis that are finding their voice and creating partnerships with Jewish Israelis. I’m committed to seeing Israel thrive as a Jewish State that embraces that full diversity, and to a Two-State solution. How did I get here?

Born in 1949 into the post WWII, post Holocaust, new State of Israel world, I was educated in a Conservative synagogue by Holocaust Survivor teachers who didn’t spare the details of their experiences; and I remember my extended family excitedly gathering to read letters from our mishpochah on Kibbutz in Israel. Israel was a sanctuary; a home of our own. We sang Hatikvah with gratitude, and pride.  We bought JNF leaves to “make the desert bloom.”

My first trip to Israel was in 1968, the summer following the Six Day War and after my first year of college. I worked on a kibbutz in the Judean hills, picking weeds in a cotton field.  Israel was still a third world country, with the spirit of everyone working together to guard her and grow her. Where else could twenty kids hitchhike together to go for glidah/ice cream, have a pickup truck stop to let you all pile in; then wait for you while you ate your ice cream and drive you back through the hills to the kibbutz? Everyplace we went there were abandoned tanks and signs warning of land mines, reminding us of Israel’s vulnerability; her strength. Young men shared their experiences of liberating the Old City with tears in their eyes. For a first time in modern history, Jews were able to go to the Wailing Wall for Tish B ’Av; and I was there.

While my Jewish identity has always been primary for me, I have always been deeply committed to diversity; to finding the commonalities that we share across many divides, as well as respecting, and learning from the differences. This drew me to social work as a profession.  It shaped the work I did through Hillel at UIC, both within and beyond the campus Jewish community. Surely it influenced my decision to adopt a child from a different racial and cultural background, to live in a diverse community. In turn, the work I did at UIC, and what I’ve learned from my child over the years have deepened both my understandings and my commitments to bridge building and diversity here; and also, in Israel.

Since 1968 I’ve returned to Israel five more times. Three of those trips have focused on understanding Israel’s religious, racial, and political dynamics and divisions, as well as a witnessing the brave efforts of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis, and Bedouin, working together to create a more inclusive Israeli society. Two of those trips have been with Reconstructing Judaism. My last visit included an eye-opening day in Bethlehem.  Gradually, through the exposures to multiple perspectives in Israel, as well as dialogues and co-sponsorships with Muslim Students at UIC, the courses on Israeli/Palestinian history I audited there, and my own reading, I’ve let go of the myths about Israel I was raised with.  Yet even as I see her many flaws; and there are many, I continue to love and appreciate much of Israeli culture and to feel a connection to her peoples; and a new aspirational dream of a democratic Israel that is a sanctuary for many kinds of Jews, as well as for Palestinians, Bedouin, and others that choose to live there, alongside a Palestinian State.

During a former time at JRC, I was reluctant to share my perspective on Israel.  Participating with the current Israel-Palestine working group—a role I took on because I felt I had to do something after the events of October 7— has changed that. While our group comes from and holds markedly different perspectives on and commitments to Israel and Palestine, we were able to find much that we could still agree on.  For me, even more importantly, the group has demonstrated a deep respect for one another’s deeply held beliefs.  I believe this is also true of JRC as a whole, and I’m looking forward to listening to and continuing to learn from one another’s stories.