I Found a Part of Myself in Israel. Now, My Entire Self Is Shattering.

The silver lining in this situation is that I feel closer to my Israeli family than ever before.
November 9, 2023

October 7, 2023 will forever be a defining moment in my life. It’s one of those days you can point to and show a before and after version of yourself, a day where I became a different person in just a few hours. 

That morning, I woke up to dozens of texts and news alerts: Israel had been invaded by land, sea, and air by Hamas, a Palestinian terror group in the Gaza Strip, and already hundreds had been ruthlessly and systematically murdered, injured, and others taken hostage. 

I felt an indescribable fear. 

My first thought was my family. 

Half of my very large family lives in Israel: Aunts, uncles, a great aunt, cousins — so many cousins — second cousins too. I contacted some of them via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. “Are you okay? What is happening? What can I do?” 

Thankfully, my family lives in the north of Israel – Kiryat Shmona – a small town right on the border of Lebanon. Although Israel is only the size of New Jersey, they were far enough away from the Hamas invasion in the south. But despite their location, they were still holed up inside — unable to leave their homes — because no one in the country had any idea what was happening. 

In the weeks that followed, my family and my friends in Israel had been in and out of bomb shelters as rockets were being fired on them at all hours. All my cousins have relocated several times now that Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group located in Lebanon, has also begun firing rockets into the country. 

Every day since October 7, I wake up inundated with alerts about rocket-fire all around the country. The country of Israel, and its people, are at fighting for their lives and right to exist. 

At one point, one of my cousins returned to Kiryat Shmona with his wife, toddler, and newborn son because they could no longer afford the place where they were taking cover. They stayed at their home briefly, visiting with their two cats they had to leave behind. (One of their friends who hadn’t left yet has been taking care of them.)  Finally, they found another “safer” location they could afford, gathered more belongings, and headed out again. Shortly after they departed, a rocket from Lebanon struck a nearby home that went up in flames. Thankfully, no one was injured.

A similar incident happened to my other cousin who had returned to Kiryat Shmona with her husband and three young children to pick up a few things. Except, they were still there when rockets struck right down the street.

Aside from the perpetual looming physical danger and violence and relocating, most of my family members haven’t been able to work and have been living off their savings. Some of them have also been relying on the kindness of other family members and strangers at various kibbutzim — communal living situations unique to Israel — to get by. 

Every day, I check on them, and every day, they tell me all they want is for this nightmare to be over and to go home. All they want is for their friends and colleagues drafted back into the Israel Defense Forces to come back safely; all they want is for the over 200 hostages who are Israeli, American and from around the world to come back alive. All they want is to live in their country in peace. 

The silver lining in this situation is that I feel closer to my Israeli family than ever before. Since October 7, it’s become part of my daily routine to check on them. Once I find out the latest updates on their situations, we typically spend time chatting. One of my cousins and I exchange photos of our cats; my other cousin and I exchange voice messages where I often hear birds in the background as warplanes fly overhead. Some of my other cousins and I share videos and pictures, both informational, in regards to the war but also of their children and grandchildren, and sometimes I’ll share memes in hopes that I make them smile while they live through war. 

Chatting with my family in Israel every day is a new experience because I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with them. In fact, I didn’t meet many of them until 2017, when I was already 27. My father was born and raised in Kiryat Shmona. He and my mother, a Jewish American, met in Israel. They came back to the U.S., got married, and eventually had my sister and me. But they got divorced when I was four, and I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father until I became a young adult. 

I grew up with a lot of self-hatred — specifically around being Jewish. 

Although my mother’s family were proud Jews, my struggle with my Jewish/Israeli identity began in second grade when I was mocked by two Arab American classmates for being Jewish. I was seven at the time and didn’t quite have an understanding of why someone would tease and ridicule me for my ethnicity and religion. I looked like them, but I wasn’t one of them. I was an ‘other.’

I went home from school that day distraught, and that’s when my mother had “the talk” with me. She said something like, “Be careful of who you reveal you are Jewish to — because, unfortunately, some people won’t like you.” 

After this incident, I experienced years of microaggressions. When people would find out I was Jewish, I would often hear, “You’re Jewish!? … You don’t look Jewish”; “You’re too pretty to be Jewish”; “Didn’t you guys kill Christ?” And so on. 

In college, in my sophomore year dorm, I was living next to a person I now consider an antisemite. He constantly made money/Jew jokes, which I laughed off because I had no self-esteem. One day, our entire floor was at a party, and unprovoked, he turned to me and said, “Go back to the oven where you belong.” 

I walked home by myself, in the dark, hysterical. 

For most of my life, I hid my Jewish identity when I could; it helped that I am racially ambiguous and often pass for other cultures, including Arab, Italian, or Greek. For my entire life, I grappled with the realities of what it means to be Jewish and Israeli despite not being a religious person, coming from a secular home, and being friends with mostly non-Jewish people. 

And then, in 2017, I went to Israel with my father for the first time. It was also the first time I slept under the same roof as my dad since I was four years old. It was a profound and deeply emotional experience.

My father is the youngest of six children, and I met all of his siblings except one of his older brothers, who died when I was a child. I was introduced to many of my dozens of first cousins and some of their children. I even got to meet my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister. Everyone cried — especially my dad’s siblings — who had never gotten to know their baby brother’s daughter. 

I saw the small town and house where my father grew up and the fields where he used to pick fruit and work. I learned about my family’s immigration history from Iran to Israel because of the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran — they soon would no longer be welcome. I got to know my grandparents through stories translated by my cousins. 

I spent quality time with my Israeli family — time I missed out on as a child born in America to divorced parents. I traveled the land of Israel with them — a powerful and spiritual experience. Being there caused a visceral physical and emotional reaction that I can’t fully explain with words. 

I found a part of myself I didn’t realize was missing in Israel.

I returned to America with a newfound love and appreciation for my Israeli and Jewish identity. I would be proud, and I would never hide again. 

I returned to America with a newfound love and appreciation for my Israeli and Jewish identity. I would be proud, and I would never hide again. And then in May of 2021 the latest large-scale escalation between Israel and Hamas — before this year — occurred. I was a digital journalist at the time, working on a piece, when I received a text message from a friend that said, “What are your people doing?” I spiraled into shock, anger, sadness, and confusion. The little girl inside of me wanted to “go back into the closet” and hide my identity, as I often did in the past. 

But I didn’t, and instead, as someone who felt ignorant of the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and didn’t know anything about the Palestinian perspective, I began investigating. I wrote a series for Forbes highlighting Israeli and Palestinian women in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, America and Canada, who were all working for peace and coexistence. I spent months conducting interviews, doing research, and writing. I also wrote about Israeli and Palestinian musicians working for peace and change. 

Allison Norlian and her father Yitzhak Norlian in Israel

Writing these articles was illuminating, and after it was over, I had Palestinian friends and understood much more of their perspective on the situation. So much so that whenever something happened, and Israel was thought to be in the wrong, I spoke out about it. In my circle, I became active in speaking up for Palestinian human rights, and on social media continued to break down walls, build bridges, and prove people who are pinned as enemies can, in fact, be friends. I wanted desperately to create lasting positive change between our communities, so much so that I sacrificed friendships with other Israelis and Jewish people who disagreed with my advocacy. I also surrendered my own sanity and self when I saw some of the Palestinian people I befriended making comments online that I disagreed with and found inflammatory. However, I said nothing and kept scrolling, because I believed keeping their friendship was more important. Just as I saw their humanity, I hoped and felt, despite their posts, that they saw mine. 

And then October 7 happened —  one of the worst days of my life. 

I spent the majority of the day communicating with my family in Israel, doom-scrolling on social media, watching both American and Israeli news, and trying to make sense of the situation. Thankfully, I heard from many concerned family members and friends — both Jewish and non-Jewish — asking about my family and well-being.

But the people I didn’t hear from were the Palestinian American friends with whom I had created relationships. Instead, while Hamas murdered Holocaust survivors, kidnapped, raped, and tortured women, brutally obliterated entire families and burned and mutilated babies, they shared posts about “resistance.” Instead of reaching out to me, as I have done for them, to see if my family was alive and I was OK, they shared posts on social media to “stop talking to Zionists” and called Hamas “martyrs.” (A Zionist is a person who believes in Israel’s right to exist and the self-determination of Jewish people. It is not a dirty word as so many have been led to believe. During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists rebranded the word as a slur to encompass multiple antisemitic tropes and it has taken hold in anti-Israel discourse.) 

And then, when I finally did hear from one of these so-called friends, it was to accuse me of Zionist propaganda (at this point, all I had posted was the news of what was happening in Israel and quotes from peace organizations, including Women Wage Peace), and to inform me that they had been trying to “decolonize my mind and have me appreciate my Iranian Jewish identity.” Basically, in so many words, our friendship was conditional on me rejecting my Israeliness — an integral part of my identity.

To be an Israeli or a Jew in Israel and around the world is to be part of a tribe, or ethno-religion, of people that have survived pogroms both in outside the Arab world since Jews lived in the Kingdom of Israel in 10th and 9th centuries BCE. We’ve been pushed out and persecuted by the Romans, the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks, the Arabs, etc. — a persecuted minority in the land where we began and in every land we’ve ever settled in since. 

The “Free Palestine” propaganda, which I believe is wildly different from the Palestinian human rights cause, is feeding the world lies about “decolonization,” the history of Israel, and the history and connections of Jews to Israel. And the propaganda is working and can be seen by the thousands of people shouting to “gas the Jews” and “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” even before Israel had counted its dead and retaliated.

What I have learned since October 7 is that this is not about land at all; this is about Jews and ridding the world of us. I should have known based on the history, but I didn’t want to believe this was true.

What I have learned since October 7 is that this is not about land at all; this is about Jews and ridding the world of us. I should have known based on the history, but I didn’t want to believe this was true.

Since October 7, the news has just continued to somehow get worse, including the fact that one of the women, a peace activist named Vivian Silver, who I interviewed for my Israeli/Palestinian series, was captured and taken hostage by Hamas. Most of the innocent Israeli civilians they murdered and captured were peace activists trying to improve the lives of Palestinians.

I have lost friends. I have unfollowed and blocked people I once respected and I have never felt so alone and isolated in the world. I have never felt so much fear in my life for my safety and the safety of my family and friends. 

I have lost friends. I have unfollowed and blocked people I once respected and I have never felt so alone and isolated in the world. I have never felt so much fear in my life for my safety and the safety of my family and friends. 

All the while, I still grieve for the innocent Palestinians inside Gaza who were born into horrific circumstances in many ways beyond their control. I will always condemn violent acts by traumatized Israelis against innocent Palestinians in the West Bank. I still yearn for a solution where both people can feel safe in this seemingly nonstop cycle of bloodshed. I can still hold space for my anger and grief and that of the innocent people on the other side suffering as Israel defends itself from the daily ceaseless barrage of rockets all around the country. But how does Israel negotiate with terrorists? How do the Jews of this land negotiate with people who not only don’t want to compromise, but want every Jewish person — in Israel and beyond — dead? 

I believe most people calling for a ceasefire want to end the suffering. It is an ignorant statement. An unconditional ceasefire from Israel will not do that — it will result in the destruction of the only Jewish country in the entire world. 

While the world shouts about “genocide” and “apartheid,” in Israel it forgets to look at actual statistics that show the Palestinian population rising over the last several decades, and the reality that Israel is the ONLY country in the Middle East where people actually do coexist. Jewish people in Arab lands were pushed out after Israel’s independence; today, there are almost no Jews left in Arab countries in the Middle East.

Israel is where I found a piece of myself, a country where I hope to go again soon to create more memories with my beautiful family – to make up for all that lost time.

Israel is the only democracy in the middle east and home to not only Jews, but Arabs, Bedouins, Druze and other minorities who are Israeli citizens. Israel is the only place in the entire world where Jewish people are fully accepted for who they are; it’s our haven in a perilous world that has always and continues to try to destroy us.

Israel is here to stay. And I will forever support the Jewish state.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Allison Norlian is a three-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker, journalist, and screenwriter who co-owns BirdMine, a production company focused on elevating stories about underrepresented populations like the disabled and Jewish community. 

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