This month I spent a day (for about the 6th time) at the Israeli Visa office. (The foreign ministry was on strike when I got here and I am getting my official student visa versus visitors visa now.) It was an enlightening experience. In the United States, I can freely mark down my religion on a census form. My rabbi and my parents' rabbi were both happy to write me letters certifying that I was Jewish without any background investigation as this is not the case in Israel. "Why do you need to certify that you am Jewish?" you might ask. Israel is a Jewish state and one's ethnic/ religious identity impacts the services they receive. I for example would have received a discounted student visa if I could prove my heritage. One's ability to marry, immigrate, get state benefits, etc all depend on certified membership in the Jewish group.
And by the way, proof means submitting paperwork to an official group of orthodox Jewish men who decide if you are in or out. This is not a statement about how it should be or about political opinion. It might be necessary for the Israeli State, but it makes me appreciate the US where gender equality and the separation of Church and State speed bureaucratic interactions and uphold rights I have grown accustomed to and cherish.
For those unfamiliar with this system, I'll give an example of how secular (non-religious) Jewish individuals must uphold some Orthodox Jewish laws for political reasons. Here having a Jewish marriage (according to the state/ Orthodox parameters) impacts your rights and status (taxes, citizenship, etc). Therefore, Jewish women must visit a ritual bath and say certain prayers before they can be married. This means for many secular women going to a public bath, stripping down, and having another woman instruct you. The certificate of having completed this must be handed to the (state approved male) Rabbi before the ceremony can happen. For many here this is seen as sacred and is a cherished moment. For me, it's requirement and single gendered burdon makes the idea uncomfortable. Notably, many secular Jews here get married in other countries to avoid these types of restrictions.
In addition to this freedom to self-identify, American bureaucracy tends to be (while annoying and sometimes form filled) direct. (Unlike my writing on occasion.) One can know, from American government websites, what forms to bring in, how much you will pay for a service, and how many times you will need to return (usually just once). In this case, I am on visit 3 to the Herzliya office to bring in extra forms, waiting in line 2-6 hours each time for my number (deli counter style) to be called. (I visited the Tel Aviv office twice before being referred to another city.) I do appreciate that the women who work at these office as often very nice and helpful and especially appreciate that most speak 3-5 languages (Hebrew, Arabic, French, English, and often another) to do their jobs. They deserve a great deal of praise for maintaining this.
Cultures around the world value different rights differently and run their offices in different way. While that is something that might seem basic, it is not something I encounter often. It took travel into Jordan, for example to understand how much I value freedom of speech in the US. In Israel, the capacity of city workers to speak multiple languages is astounding. On this particular trip, I have come to value my identity. Not only my heritage, but my ability to decide how I identify on my own.