I am an American, a Jew and a stranger
The exterminator walked from room to room of my house, spraying the corners and baseboards as he does during every quarterly inspection, strains of David’s Harp lilting from his phone as he worked.
Moving about, he explained that he was also a minister, called by G-d at a very young age, and a believer in prophecy (as he understood it). Clearly, a softspoken and gentle man.
As he was about to leave the house, he noticed a print of Jerusalem hanging on the wall of our foyer. He already knew we were Jewish from a previous conversation we had. Still, it came as a surprise to me, when, as he looked at the print, he asked me why we hadn’t moved to Israel yet.
I tried to explain that Jews live all over the world, that our religion doesn’t require us to move to Israel.
He said he understood all that, but he still wanted to know why we had not moved to Israel.
“Because I’m an American,” I finally said.
He accepted that and left the house.
Feeling a little shaken, I walked about the house, collecting my thoughts. If I had asked something similar of anyone Black, Hispanic, Arab or Asian, I could have been accused of racism.
Now, I had a taste of how it felt to be on the receiving end of that implied question: Why don’t you go back where you came from?
In fairness to the exterminator, he came back minutes later. He said that the Lord had spoken to him, told him that his question had been misinterpreted by me and that he should explain himself.
Since he was a student of prophecy, he said, he understood that the Jews have a special connection to Israel in a way that others don’t feel for the countries of their own origins. He said that he did not mean any offense.
I took him at his word, and I considered that he was interpreting Jewish texts through a Christian prism.
But that question, intended or not, still stung: Why don’t you go back where you came from?
Jews have been made to feel like aliens for a thousand years, often with catastrophic results: Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms, German Jews fleeing the Nazis, Jews of Arab lands fleeing the rise of anti-Israel nationalism.
Many Jews, including many American Jews, have chosen to make their lives in Israel, including the parents of Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister. That should be respected.
But what of Jews who choose to stay in the lands where they were born? Are we somehow letting down the team by not making Aliyah?
It’s a difficult question, whether to choose Israel or the land of our birth.
See if this sounds familiar: You’re in high school. Your class – social studies, most likely – is studying world conflicts. Some kid sitting next you asks which side you will be on if the United States and Israel go to war.
It happened to me, more than once.
Asian-Americans understand how that feels. So do Arab-Americans, Iranian-Americans; more historically, Japanese-Americans, German-Americans and Italian-Americans. All have been accused of dual or conflicting loyalties.
Why don’t you go back where you came from?
America and other western democracies are filled with peoples who fled tyranny and hatred in their own lands. We will soon see a new wave as Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban come here. I hope we will welcome them as we remember our own experiences, and the lesson of Torah: to welcome the stranger.
Because, when you think of it, aren’t we all strangers? Blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Muslims are so far apart these days in an increasingly divided country.
I now have a taste of what it feels like to be on the outside – just a taste. It lacked malice or hatred, unlike the bitterness others are forced to swallow. But I have it.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)