Words by Genevieve Slonim, photographed by Jael Porat
Growing up, I was never considered a person of color, but at the same time, I didn't consider myself white. Not in the way my friends would talk about 'white people' at least. My ethnicity is Italian, Irish, and Mexican. I had one of those looks where no matter where I was growing up, people asked me, 'Are you Hawaiian?’ 'Are you half Japanese?' ' Are you Indian?'... because I had that Disney whitewashed Pocahontas look that meant I blended in everywhere. My classmates and neighborhood were a mix of Black, Asian, Irish and Mexican. I felt like I was a part of everything (without having to pay any societal penalty for being a person of color).
I am definitely white and have never faced institutional discrimination, structural racism or prejudice in any form. However because of my own family struggles growing up facing domestic violence, financial insecurities, and other experiences of being powerless, I have always looked to people of color as a source of inspiration on how to prevail despite forces against you. Maybe for this reason I have always fought racism and been aware of all the subtle and overt ways it manifests itself.
Growing up in San Francisco with such importance placed on diversity, Ethnic Studies, and just the fact that I only lived and went to school in mixed areas, I never considered Jewish being a different culture. Most Jews I knew were Buddhist. It just wasn't exotic or even worth considering as a 'culture' to understand or adopt to. Years later when I met my husband and I found out he was Israeli, the first question I asked him was “Do you know what Israel did to the Palestinians today” and started talking about the Occupation. He kind of smirked and said, “No, I've been surfing in the Dominican Republic for the past few months.” Later I found out that after being a soldier he joined the Refusenik group and was and remains very politically active against the Occupation and is for peace building.
We lived in Barcelona for a few years in a very international group of friends from Pakistan, Israel, all of Europe, and a few from America. Race as I had known it was transcended as we had a very diverse group of international friends, different 'races', different colors, different languages, different customs, but all of us young and cool and living in Barcelona. Years later after our daughter was born in Barcelona, we made the decision to move to Israel.
Immediately after moving to Israel it was the first time in my life I experienced being a minority. Israel is very 'ethnically' diverse. There are Jewish people from Iran, Tunisia, Europe, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia and a fourth of the population within Israel are Palestinian Arab. There is also a large number of the Jewish population here (including my husband's family) who are indigenous, meaning they have never left and returned. My husband's grandparents were born here under Turkish rule during the Ottoman Empire and his mother’s family was here before the 'State of Israel' under British Mandate for Palestine as minorities within a largely Palestinian area. That changed with the illegal migration of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, and the conflict between Jews and Arabs for land control quickly broke out and sadly hasn't ended. As far as color or look Israel is the most diverse and ethnic place I have ever been to in all my travels, but the dominant culture here is still Jewish.
I was asked daily if I am Jewish. I was asked in the security at airports if I have my own family here, while standing next to my husband and children. I have been called many derogatory names, wasn't able to get married here as a non-Jew, and have had it explained to me that by intermarrying I am harming the Jewish people. I moved to a place where everything, the national anthem, the holidays, the traditions, is focused solely on the hopes, dreams and values of the Jewish people without something universal that I can relate to. At the same time the Palestinian population is larger than the African American and South American population in the US combined. They equally have a language, dress code, customs and traditions that are rich and beautiful, but only accessible to me from afar.
It took a lot of adjustment for me here. Starting the work and school week on a Sunday. Holidays based on the Jewish calendar and not the Gregorian with no Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween. I went through a period of wanting to be called 'Gen' instead of Genevieve to make it less obvious that I wasn't Jewish. So that I wouldn't be left out, or have assumptions made about me. I had to get used to being categorized within a group, not by my individual actions. People would make associations and assumptions about how non-Jewish people have acted historically towards Jews and accept that, and as far as I personally felt from this history, I was still placed in the 'suspect' category. As my children grew up I would get used to their friends saying, “Well, your mom is not Jewish”, and wonder if my broken Hebrew embarrassed them.
I'm not sure when but at a certain point I began embracing the diversity of our family. I returned to the high value diversity that was in San Francisco. I realized that my outsider/insider status has allowed me to become friends with both Palestinians and Jewish people and I don't carry the historical burden they both have. I realized I have a very unique perspective and it is up to me to define how I relate to the Jewish culture. I began to light candles on Shabbat, do the ceremonial bath, the Mikveh, listen to Arabic music on the radio while driving, pepper my English with Hebrew and Arabic. I learned to love both of these rich cultures and feel deeply for their histories and struggles. Jewish people hold a heavy collective trauma from the Holocaust which is still being processed and the Palestinians in the Territories are suffering under Occupation.
Within all this background we have embraced our diversity as a family. It is a core value that guides us. My children see and experience the world through diverse experiences and perspectives. Diversity is not easy. It requires more than saying 'we are one'. It requires making space for the distinct experiences and stories of different people who often have conflicting values. By focusing on equality, belonging, and a willingness to accept our differences, what is universal between us is strengthened and real diversity is possible.
Connect with author through Instagram- @genevieve.family