Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman. Shokin writes:
I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory.
Shokin does a wonderful job describing how her hair was caught up with her feelings of awkwardness, shame, and exclusion, how difficult it was as an adolescent to contend with images of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera from the vantage of “frizzy brown hair and glasses.” This was no simple matter of teenage angst, Shokin makes clear; it cut to the heart of her Jewish identity, not to mention a long history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, Jewish looks, including hair, have been a dividing line between the drowned and the saved. As that simple line from Paul Celan reminds us: “your golden hair Margarete/ your ashen hair Shulamit.” So it’s quite clear in Shokin’s piece that she’s not simply describing her personal insecurities. She’s tapping into a wider conversation, familiar to members of other ethnic minorities, about how particular conceptions of beauty become markers of status and inclusion—and, concomitantly, inferiority and exclusion. It’s no wonder that when Shokin goes to Israel and sees so many dos like her own, she feels at home.
But there’s something to be said about stepping into a hair salon and not feeling like a piece of work, just as there is about stepping into crowd of people and not feeling like a stranger.
That said, the piece suffers from an obliviousness I can’t help flinching at. Nowhere in Shokin’s discussion does she even give a hint that she’s aware that her feeling at home comes at a cost to someone else. How might a teenage Palestinian girl in the West Bank—undergoing not only the adolescent angst that Shokin once endured but also the facts of the Occupation—read this piece? Might she not respond, “I have to suffer all of this, just so you can feel at home with your hair?”
I’m being tendentious. But it’s a tendentious situation. And articles like this don’t help. They speak instead to a larger cluelessness among Jewish Americans about what they’re doing when they go to Israel and find themselves at home.
I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had over the years with Jewish defenders of the State of Israel whose position is entirely fair and eminently reasonable—so long as you forget that there are actual Palestinians living there. People I love and respect mount air-tight arguments and make genuinely moving cases to me about the Jewish need for a refuge from persecution; about the desire to live somewhere—anywhere, say some—where they are not a minority; about the stirring feeling of hearing Hebrew spoken in the street; about the longing to feel at home. About wanting to be a teenager who loves her hair.
All of this I hear, and think, yes, of course, how could anyone not understand and empathize with that? But all of these heartfelt and legitimate claims rest upon a simple omission: the Palestinians. For these claims to obtain their intended force, we have to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t there—or that they don’t exist.
Shokin’s piece is a microcosm: its adolescent sense that my problems are the only problems that matter in this world sound all too much like Zionist arguments for a Jewish homeland. Not Zionist arguments at their weakest, but Zionist arguments at their strongest.