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BDS activist falls in love with female soldier, becomes Zionist; they’ll marry

As her relationship with Ronnie Zidon deepened, Jess Belding did what she previously believed was unthinkable and moved to Israel; she also converted to Judaism

Maayan Jess Belding (left) and Ronnie Zidon (from Maayan Jess Belding's Facebook page)
Maayan Jess Belding (left) and Ronnie Zidon (from Maayan Jess Belding's Facebook page)

Birds of a feather or opposites attract?

Jess Belding, an American student at Yale University, was a committed anti-Israel activist when she began corresponding with Ronnie Zidon, who was a soldier at the time in the Israel Defense Forces.

Bonding over their mutual admiration for pop band One Direction, the two grew closer and were speaking daily on messaging applications by the time the 2014 Gaza war broke out between Israel and the Hamas terror group.

Belding, who was active in the pro-boycott movement, was sent a photo by Zidon of her mother hiding in a bomb shelter in Rishon Lezion during a rocket barrage from Gaza.

“When I saw the photo I was very scared. I was happy that Ronnie wasn’t with her mother, that she was on guard duty in the army far away from there. That was a moment after which I couldn’t feel the same as before. The Israelis became real people for me,” Belding told Xnet, the lifestyle section of the Ynet news site.

A few days later, Belding attended a commemoration at Yale organized by a Palestinian friend from Gaza for Palestinians killed in the fighting. “There were candles everywhere and I felt guilty because I also felt the pain of the other side. I also wanted the war to end but I felt I made a mistake with my anti-Israeli opinions. I understood I became Zionist,” she said.

Just two years later, Belding moved to Israel to be with Zidon, adopting the Hebrew name “Maayan” and undergoing a conversion to Judaism.

“It is hard to even believe sometimes how I, who was so against [Israel], moved to the other side. I was an anti-Zionist and an active anti-Israel activist in the BDS organization, and I’m not proud of this at all,” said Belding.

Now 27, Belding lives in Israel together with Zidon and works as an education coordinator at the Israel Experience, a tour company owned by the Jewish Agency.

Belding’s path from adamant opponent of Israel to Zionist engaged to an Israeli woman appeared near impossible before she met Zidon, as she recalled in the interview her deep discomfort at having Shabbat dinner in a West Bank settlement during a student-exchange trip to the region in 2010.

“I felt very uncomfortable with this. I was very against the occupation. At that stage I don’t think I even wanted to interact with Israelis,” she said.

Though Belding’s anti-Israel advocacy wasn’t a barrier in their relationship, Zidon said she felt she had to stand up for Israel. “I told her a missile fell in our neighborhood in Rishon Lezion. I bugged her [about] how scary this is,” Zidon said.

Eight months after first making contact, Belding invited Zidon to visit her in New York for their first in-person meeting. “That trip changed my life. On the first day with Jess everything was magical,” Zidon said.

Following that trip, the two continued their long-distance relationship for another year-and-a-half, when Belding travelled to Israel on a trip organized by Masa. “After this visit I understood Israel could be my home,” Belding said.

Belding began Hebrew lessons and a year ago moved in with Zidon. During the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival in June, Zidon proposed to Belding and the two are scheduled to marry next summer.

In addition to her conversion to Zionism, Belding — who was raised Catholic — has been undergoing a conversion to Judaism.

“Jess went for a conversion with the Conservative movement, which is not recognized by the chief rabbinate, but she did it with the toughest rabbi, did a million lessons and it was important to her to prove she deserves to be a Jew,” Zidon said.

“Many of things they asked of her were answers to her connection to Israel, why she wanted to come live in Israel. Our relationship made it easier to answer these questions,” Zidon added.

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