By Adina Siff for Heart of a Nation
At thirteen years old, I went to my third — and what would probably have been my last — AIPAC Policy Conference.
Nothing prepared me for a speech delivered there by Vice President Mike Pence. Hearing him praise Israel, I began to cry.
How could a man so despicably racist, homophobic, and transphobic also be so pro-the only place I’d ever felt at home? What did this mean for my relationship with Israel, and my aspirations of making Aliyah, if a person who stood for the rooted divisions of humanity was also one of the strongest proponents of a country I loved?
Having grown up attending two Jewish day schools, I always knew I was further to the political left than establishment Democrats. I transitioned fully from liberalism to leftism later, during the 2020 presidential election.
Mike Pence, and the multitude who cheered him on, represents everything I most despise and fear about the political right. That he presented himself as Israel’s greatest champion didn’t make sense.
There was a fundamental dissonance on display that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Something was clearly wrong.
I found myself in that moment wondering why my leftist role models — people like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — were outspoken critics of Israel? My political heroes work against Israel; my political antagonists fought for it?
If Pence was “pro-Israel” and Bernie was “anti-Israel” (such strange terms, really), then maybe people on the left were correct about the correlations between the worst tendencies of the United States (which I recognized) and of Israel (which I didn’t)?
The answer is kind of. And kind of not. (I still really don’t know.)
Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu have been role models of mine for as long as I can remember. I wonder, now, if they were alive, what they would be saying about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How is it possible that people I have looked up to my entire life might be expressing wildly divergent views? Who is right? Is no one right?
I crave guidance. Are there others who are equally torn and, at the same time, trying to do something that will make a difference? Most of the people I know, whether Israeli or American or Palestinian or otherwise, firmly know what they believe and try not to budge on the subject.
Since these issues are so central to my identity, my ambivalence posed a threat to my love and devotion to the Jewish People. It seemed like I disagreed with everyone and I felt lost.
That changed over the course of a single Shabbat dinner conversation with the founder of a new organization called Heart of a Nation. Remarkably, I don’t feel as lost.
Heart of a Nation is an organization that was created to build bridges between progressive Americans, progressive Israelis, and progressive Palestinians. Their goal is to better all three societies. It’s rather ironic: I’ve spent a very long time attacking liberals for (in my opinion) shortcomings in their theories of change (for example: I fundamentally disagree with their desire to maintain structures that are systemically rooted in the oppression of marginalized groups).
I was not expecting to agree with our dinner guest as much as I did. I still don’t agree with everything I heard about this new organization, but our guest was an open book. For the first time I felt comfortable enough — safe enough — to ask the questions for which I was previously terrified I’d be judged. I found myself articulating my thoughts better than I’d ever been able to before (and I’d tried countless times with family, friends, and strangers on the Internet). I felt that my opinions were being taken seriously and had value.
At the end of the night, I was offered a Heart of a Nation internship. I accepted immediately.
This essay consists of questions, and contradictions, more than answers. It’s an attempt to articulate my internal struggles — a distress signal of sorts — aimed at bringing together people who are grappling with the same questions (especially people who have grown up learning only a single perspective, and who are coming to terms with the fact that there is way more to every story).
I’ve been collecting these thoughts for a long time, and this is only the beginning of what I know will be a very long journey. But I’m excited about my internship, and the conversations, debates and further education that will ensue.
I am confident, and feeling hopeful, and think I have found a home — without ever leaving home.
Adina Siff is a rising eleventh grader at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. When not debating with her parents and friends, Adina enjoys creative writing, listening to Taylor Swift, and hiking.