Being Jewish American Abroad – How Palestine Israel has come up in my everyday conversations in Taiwan

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Coming to Taiwan, I didn’t think my Jewish-American identity would come up at all in conversation. In the US, I live in South West Michigan. There is only a small Jewish community where I live, so I rarely talk about being Jewish unless it’s a high holy holiday. Because I am visibly queer, neurodivergent, and deaf, I usually talk about my gender identity and deafness more than I talk about being Jewish. However, since living abroad in Taiwan, my Jewish-American identity comes up constantly.

My first conversation about being Jewish started before I came to Taiwan, with other Jewish CET students. Where I live, there are not many young, Jewish people (I basically know every Jewish person my age in the radius of Chicago), but there is a surprising amount of Jewish students studying abroad in Taiwan with CET. I connected with some of these people online, and in person– but I relate more to Jewish students who are Jew(ish) rather than Jewish. Because I did not grow up in a traditional Jewish home (I did not go to Hebrew school, we did not host regular Shabbats, and we only went to Temple during the holidays), I identify more with reform Judaism (liberal interpretation of the Torah) than orthodox Judaism. Most Jewish people are on a sliding scale of Reform Judaism to Orthodox Judaism— and their position on that sliding scale determines their political ideology as well.

There is a mix of Orthodox and Reform Jewish students on this study-abroad to Taiwan, and we have vastly different opinions on Israel’s relationship with Palestine. Typically, I try to avoid talking politics with my Jewish friends (depending on how open-minded they are), because the issue is divisive within the Jewish community. However, since coming to Taiwan, I have talked more about Israel’s conflict with Palestine MORE than I ever have in the US. These conversations, surprisingly, have not been with other Jewish CET students, but rather, with other American and Taiwanese people.

With non-Jewish Americans and Taiwanese people, I have had conversations comparing China’s relationship with Taiwan to Israel’s relationship with Palestine. Similar to how Taiwanese people have a complicated relationship with mainland China, many Jewish Americans have a complicated relationship with Israel. For Jewish Americans, we have an imaginary national identity tied to the state of Israel– as many Jewish Americans do not have family living in Israel, but the state of Israel existing (as a nation for Jewish people) acts as an imaginary “homeland” for Jewish people to return to. Basically, Israel’s existence acts as a testimony of liberation and resilience to Jewish people (as our religion and world history have taught us that we have been historically displaced and killed, and Israel is our “promised” land by God). Depending on a Jewish person’s political alignment and family ties to Israel, we have different views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most Jewish people agree that there should be a Jewish state, but we disagree on how that Jewish state was created, and how it is maintained.

Similarly, Taiwanese people have a complicated relationship with China, but are more unified in how they view a Taiwanese identity. Taiwanese people have their identity as uniquely “Taiwanese,” which means speaking Hokkien, having lived experience within Taiwan, and identifying away with China. This identity is rooted in a history of colonialism between Dutch, French, Japanese, and Chinese occupation— and within the last several decades, this identity has strengthened to be independent of China. Politically, Taiwan has to maintain that they are “a part of China,” — so people outside of Taiwan view China and Taiwan as synonymous countries. Because Taiwanese identity formation is relatively “new” within academic and national discourse, it’s hard to define it as looking and acting a certain way, and also varies between younger and older Taiwanese.

Similarly, both Taiwanese and Jewish-American identities are inherently political. Before coming to Taiwan, I understood that identifying as “Taiwanese” and not “Chinese” is political outside of Taiwan— as many people (including mainland Chinese) view Taiwanese people as Chinese. Jewish identities are also political, because identifying as Jewish-American is often synonymous with pro-Israel. Unlike most Jews, I am very critical of Israel’s occupation in Palestine, and I do not see the issue as black and white. After the holocaust, half of my ancestors immigrated to New York, and the other half created a Moshav outside of Tel Aviv. I have spent time in Israel on Birthright, and I made a documentary documenting my time with IDF soldiers and their perspectives on the conflict. As an American Jew, I have a very atypical relationship with my identity, and other Jews would be critical of my perspective (for various reasons). With that being said, I deeply relate to Taiwanese identity displacement, as both Jews and Taiwanese people are misunderstood outside of their respective communities.

Before the war that occurred between Palestine and Israel last week, I was having a lot of casual conversations with CET students and Taiwanese students of what it’s like to be Jewish abroad. Because the CET students are from all over the US, many people have never met a Jewish person before, or did not know anything about Jewish culture other than the Holocaust, Hannakah, or Fiddler on the Roof. These conversations are normal for me— because I live in a community with no Jewish people— so I often share my identity through weekly Shabbat dinners while eating Challah and drinking wine. These conversations have taught me that many people only understand Jewish identity through tragedy and not joy, and this limits the sort of questions non-Jewish people can ask other Jewish Americans.

As someone who is really open about my lived experiences, I try to encourage my peers abroad to ask questions about Jewish-American culture they wouldn’t be able to normally ask– which includes questions about my perspective on Israel’s occupation in Palestine. I explained to my roommates that many young Jews are very pro-Israel because college Hillel chapters (Jewish College organizations) receive funding from the state of Israel, which encourages students to have a pro-Israel stance through educational workshops, birthright, and E-board positions. Because many Jewish synagogues also have a pro-Israel stance, many young Jews are not critical of Hillel’s funding or educational material. Additionally, there are no other non-Hillel Jewish organizations on campus, so if other Jewish students oppose Hillel’s funding/political stance— there’s no alternative organization we can join to be in-community together, so we’re often dislocated from one another. This makes it hard to find other young Jewish people who are also critical of Israel– and we often cannot find each other until a horrible tragedy happens and we speak out about it online.

Last week, when news broke out about Hamas’s attack in Israel, talks about the Israel-Palistine conflict increased in my household abroad. As an American Jew abroad, it felt so strange that my conversations from the past few weeks were so relevant to the news, because I don’t often talk about the Palistine-Israel conflict with non-Jewish friends. However, living in Taiwan, the conflict also has international implications, as China has sided with Palestine (as America supports Israel, so China’s moves are seen as “anti-American”). This has caused worry for my American friends back home– as American media skews China/Taiwan’s relationship to constantly be in “imminent danger,” — so many people are worried that China will suddenly have a war with Taiwan. On the ground, Taiwanese people are not worried about going to war with China (often, people are making light-hearted jokes about it), and I have not seen any demonstrations in Taipei.

Through Taipei 101’s nightly light show, I learned that Taiwan supports Israel. I live a few blocks away from Taipei 101, and the colors on top of the tower rotate colors daily to fulfill a weekly rainbow (Monday= red, Sunday =Purple). Sometime last week, the top of the tower was a deep blue (which is usually reserved for Saturday night), and my friend told me this is because Taiwan’s government stands in solidarity with Israel. He explained that because Taiwan wants US support (and the US stands with Israel), Taiwan tries to maintain similar political stances to the US. I think the dynamic between China supporting Palestine and Taiwan supporting Israel is so interesting because I would have imagined their positions opposite (but it makes sense in understanding the larger international political contexts).

Coming to Taiwan, I never thought I would discuss the Israel/Palestine conflict daily, nor would I have expected a war. Experiencing this conflict outside of the US has also given me new perspectives, because I’m tuned into how Taiwan and China are interacting with the conflict as well. For everyone involved, I hope this ends quickly and peacefully, and no further lives are lost.