Religion & Beliefs

Welcome to Palestine

As we drove along the Israeli border, one of the members of my tour group got a new message on his PDA. It was from his service provider. "Welcome to Palestine!" it said. As one of the Class of 2009 … Read More

By / July 10, 2009

As we drove along the Israeli border, one of the members of my tour group got a new message on his PDA. It was from his service provider. "Welcome to Palestine!" it said.

As one of the Class of 2009 Shapiro Fellows (gratuitous linkage here), I knew that this trip to Israel was going to be very different than any traveling I’d done before. The program focuses on professional development, and each of the 12 fellows was paired up with an Israeli "mentor" in their career field. In addition to the work component, the trip included Jewish education and meeting with Israeli peers. While "meeting Israeli peers" could be code for "go out and get drunk with cute soldiers" on other trips, but on this one it included spending time with the members of an education-focused kibbutz called Kibbutz Eshbal, working with activists who help the country’s growing refugee population, and learning to do traditional Ethiopian dancing at a center that helps new Ethiopian immigrants get accustomed to Israeli life.

However, by far the most dramatic component of the trip was our interaction with people who, depending on who you ask, are called either Arab Israelis or Palestinians (note: I am using the term "Palestinians" because the people I met identified themselves as such). We spent a morning touring an elementary school in Kfar Kassem, an Arab village not far from Tel Aviv that was the site of a shooting of civilians in 1956 when the IDF imposed a curfew on the town and were ordered to shoot violators. Even though the "Kfar Kassem Massacre" happened more than fifty years ago, residents of the town cannot erase it from their memories, and a large memorial in town lists the name of the people who died that day. I must admit that I thought the residents of Kfar Kassem would spend their day lecturing us or accusing 20something American Jews for complicity with something that happened before they were born, but that was not the case. Instead, once we finished our tour and had some time to sit with various teachers and school faculty, all they wanted to do was tell us their life stories – which included everything from getting graduate degrees in Hebrew Literature to being harassed by the police on the way to class to teaching at majority-Jewish Israeli schools and using their job as a way to discuss peace with students. Although the day left me with more questions than answers, I was really glad to take part in an Israel trip that was about more than just floating in the Dead Sea and buying Judaica on Ben Yehuda.

My thoughts about the benefits of Jewish/Muslim interaction stood a greater test a few days later, when the Fellows met with several residents of a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Both sides were encouraged to ask each other frank, honest questions, but soon tensions got so heated that several people walked out or threatened to do so. I’ve never been the kind of person who enjoys arguing (my boyfriend’s exact words are "allergic to conflict"), and that day in East Jerusalem made me incredibly uncomfortable. For awhile, I wished I’d never taken part in the program or at least skipped that day’s event. On a micro level, the events of that day (a shouting match between one of the Fellows and one of the Palestinians, an uncomfortable amount of "you people"s, etc) gave me some tiny sense of what it must be like for the people who work toward peace and conflict resolution every day. As an American who has the privilege of simply reading news about Israel in the morning newspaper or online and then going back to my regular daily routine, it was jarring to see the conflict on a more intimate level.

Ultimately, though, I’m glad that I stuck out the experience in East Jerusalem and didn’t bail as soon as people started to disagree with each other. It’s dangerous to send tour groups to Israel, let them meet with a couple of pre-screened Palestinians, take a couple of pictures of everyone holding hands, and then let everyone come home thinking peace is just so darn easy and why can’t we all get along. Letting tourists treat the conflict like an Afterschool Special doesn’t help anyone – instead, it boils the conflict down into a dumb show, yet another souvenir that somebody can take home along with their Evil Eye charm bracelet. If peace was as easy as showing up somewhere, holding hands, and posing for photos together, we would have achieved it by now. The truth is that peace is harder than that, and I commend the Fellowship for giving me a chance to experience it on a more visceral level, even though it’s certainly not something I ever would have done on my own. I’m still confused about where I stand politically and what I think needs to be done, but I’d rather feel this way about it than come home and think I personally solved the war and politicians are so stupid for not having figured it out by now.

Now that the Fellowship is over and I’m back home, I still have my experiences in Kfar Kassem and East Jerusalem burned into my memory. Even though I made some great new friends and had plenty of positive experiences to balance out the more challenging ones, I’m really glad I got the chance to see the conflict from multiple perspectives. It’s frustrating to have even more questions now than I did before my trip, but it’s better than thinking I have all the answers.