I recently visited Israel and Palestine for about ten days with twenty-four other student leaders in hopes of learning more about the conflict that is taking place. I am so grateful for this opportunity and I feel as though I cannot even begin to describe what I learned, felt, and saw, but I will try to do so in the following paragraphs. That being said, while reading this, please keep in mind that I am still formulating my thoughts and for all I know, my opinions could change tomorrow. I write this post with a great amount of privilege as a ten day trip does not equate to the experiences of those who live and breathe this conflict every day of their lives. Additionally, I am not Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, so I had to step outside of myself to understand how those who identify in these camps feel about the issue. These ten days were jam packed, so I will not be discussing every detail. This post is long, but I highly recommend reading all of it as my final thoughts may be the most important.
I decided to take this opportunity for two reasons. On my campus, this conflict has created a divide and I have close friends who hold very different and opposing viewpoints surrounding it. I did not know much about the issue other than the occasional news article or momentous development, so I wanted to learn and form my own opinions rather than have others tell me what to think. Additionally, I felt as though the perspectives I was hearing were very Americanized and privileged, and I wanted to hear from the people who actually live in the region and, again, live and breathe this conflict every day of their lives. Obviously, I knew that biases would exist based on the student group through which I received this opportunity, the program itinerary, and much more, and I was nervous about this, but I am intelligent and brave enough to keep an open mind, and question and challenge viewpoints about which I am skeptical (which I did along with every other member of the group).
Day One: Luckily, our flight arrived in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon, so this day was kept short. We had a delicious dinner followed by a speaker who gave us a (not so) brief introduction to the geopolitics of the region. I learned quite a bit in these first few hours, but I did notice that some of the clips he presented to us were somewhat radical and I could sense his own biases shining through his presentation.
Day Two: In the morning, we visited an organization called Save a Child’s Heart through which children from around the world seek life-saving heart treatment. I appreciated how the children were treated regardless of their nationalities, religions, colors, genders, or socioeconomic classes. The doctors who treated them did so on their own times and to see such authenticity was heartwarming. We were able to play with the children for a little bit and, of course, they were adorable.
After having lunch (a lot of hummus, pita bread, and falafel was consumed on this trip), we had a walking tour during which we learned about Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ culture. What fascinated me was how depending on where one resides in Israel, the pride community could be more or less accepted (of course, we see this in the United States as well). We ended the tour at a memorial for those in the pride community who passed away during the Holocaust.
Though this trip was exhausting, we occasionally had some relaxing experiences. Before dinner, we had a beach day at the Mediterranean Sea. Personally, this was the first time in months (maybe even years?) during which I felt truly at peace with myself.
Day Three: We began our day by visiting Netiv HaAsara which lies next to the Gaza border. The night before, over fifty rockets had been fired at this location, but we still visited. We heard from a man named Yosef who shared his experiences with living so close to the border and the constant risks his family faces. I did not agree with much of what he said, but I can understand why he views the conflict the way he does due to the traumatic events that encompass his life.
To see literal walls is a heartbreaking sight. I only wish I could have crossed over to the other side of the wall and seen how people were doing there because I expect that they are not doing well. One woman had painted murals along the inner walls to provide a sense of hope for the community. We were all able to choose stones to stick to the wall and write messages on the backs of them. I cannot remember exactly what I wrote, but I know the message was something along the lines of “humanity will prevail.”
After lunch, we met with Oded Reviv, the Mayor of Efrat, and he provided us with a historical background of his area and how relations have been with the Arab communities that surround Efrat. Our wonderful tour guide for the ten days, Bar, provided us with some great food for thought after he spoke. The Mayor was sharing his perspective on how he works with the surrounding communities, but his idea of progress differs from how those communities view progress and I do not think that he recognized this. He gave us some articles he had written for us to read and I was met with problematic language from the little I read of them.
Day Four: Our experiences in Jerusalem began this day. We visited the City of David Excavation Site and it was a wild time. We trekked through cold water in pitch black darkness for a third of a mile in an enclosed space! I have claustrophobia and received a headache from doing so, but it was totally worth the adventure.
We visited the Western Wall and while I am not very religious personally, I was moved by how deeply those around me were affected by being at this wall. I had a few conversations concerning the progressiveness of the site as men and women had to be separated. What if one does not identify in either camp? My friend told me that progress is slowly being made and a new section has been built in which people can pray together regardless of being a man or a woman.
After visiting the Western Wall, we met with an organization called Kids4Peace. We were all impressed by how these young people, some Israeli and some Palestinian, had come together to create a more welcoming atmosphere in Jerusalem. I would have loved to speak with some of the girls who are Palestinian, but we were unable to do so and this was disappointing to many of us. Luckily, I believe they will be visiting Minnesota in the Fall and I hope to connect with them then.
During dinner, we had two Israel Defense Forces soldiers speak to us. One woman is in Combat and the other is in Foreign Relations. To be honest, I was quite unnerved by this. The soldier in Combat is required to carry her weapons on her body, so I was on edge during the time she spoke with us. I wish they could have been more transparent at times, but apparently they are required to keep lots of information confidential. I asked the Combat soldier how she is trained emotionally as I could not imagine taking lives. She said that the soldiers are taught to “switch off their brains” and separate emotion from the tasks at hand. I found this quite sad.
Day Five: When I think about this day, I become emotional. I had slowly been forming thoughts and opinions, but this was the day I came to some conclusions as well. We visited Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center, and in preparation for doing so, we read some passages from Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi the night before. Reading these passages bothered me as I felt as though they were a bit hypocritical. Halevi seemed to change his viewpoints frequently and I did not agree with many of them.
Walking through Yad VaShem was hard. A few things were particularly prevalent to me. In a society that places so much emphasis on education, I found it heartbreaking to see how education was misused during the Holocaust. Nazis were teaching the youth to hate Jews among much worse. Additionally, I read a quote made by a leader in Australia which said something along the lines of not wanting to accept Jews into other countries for fear of racism being perpetuated in those places. I also read a passage describing how camps in Eastern Europe were containing Jews and taking away their resources. While the Holocaust was absolutely horrible, I could not help but draw some parallels. We learn history so we do not repeat it yet the very basis of humanity is challenged in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Toward the end of the tour, I read a simple quote. “Everyone has the right to live.” If this is the case and it took something as tragic as the Holocaust to realize it, why are lives still being lost? Why haven’t people, especially those who were and are directly affected by this time, learned from this? I left the center sad, angry, disturbed, frustrated, and a little discouraged.
We had the opportunity to walk through a few markets and Mahane Yehuda was one of them. Doing so on Shabbat was an experience and I was reminded of India when walking through it. Over all, I find the similarities between the architecture and markets in India and those of Israel and Palestine interesting.
Day Six: We visited Christian and Muslim landmarks such as the Temple Mount, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Shuk (Arab Bazaar). I think we were all overwhelmed by how much we saw in a single morning and I was a little disappointed in the lack of time spent in each site. Of course, the crowds were unbelievable, so I do not know how having more time would have helped just the same.
Considering how holy Jerusalem is, I find it upsetting that many Palestinians will never see the city in their lifetimes. How is this fair?
We then journeyed to Bethlehem and met Mustafa, our Palestinian tour guide. I am not Christian, but visiting the Church of the Nativity was still cool. I keep reminding myself of how privileged I am to have visited these places.
Given that our interactions with Palestinians were quite low in number, a few friends and I decided to ask Mustafa about his perspective and experiences with living in Bethlehem. The first thing he said was “it is a prison.” His children will never be able to visit Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, or the Red Sea. If he wants to fly somewhere, he has to travel to Jordan’s airport to do so. Mustafa has degrees from Berkeley and a Certificate in Accounting, but he lost his job due to the conflict. I asked him what he would like to see and he said that all he wants is to be able to move. Not surprisingly, every Palestinian we met said the same things. I could not imagine being unable to travel and having my life enclosed by walls.
Later that night, we heard from Khaled Abu Toameh. He is an Arab-Israeli journalist. After he spoke, I left the room stunned and disturbed. The things he said were extremely problematic. He clearly did not recognize his privilege and claimed that he is happy with this period of stability and “the status quo” because he feels unsafe. How can we call this period “stable” if people are still dying and violence is inflicted? In addition to him generalizing all Palestinians as Hamas, here are some other quotes: “Palestinians are taught to hate Israel and not want peace with Israel,” “Palestinians are sitting idly and allowing terrorism to happen,” “if Palestinians held an election and I said I killed one Jew, everyone would vote for me,” “Israel should only worry about Israel’s security,” “we raised a generation of glorification of suicide bombs and death to Israel and brainwashing,” “Why does peace always mean kicking Jews out of their homes?” He said lots more, but I was so troubled just by these sentiments and after having conversations with others, I know they were just as perturbed. He was sharing a narrative that was not his to share.
Day Seven: In the morning, we visited the Palestinian city of Ramallah and had a glimpse of a refugee camp. Our tour guide said that those in the camp did not have privacy and are living in misery. Some little boys were playing near the entrance of the camp and I wish I could have spoken to them about their experiences.
Our tour guide spoke to us outside the Tomb of Arafat and he expressed some thoughts worth noting: “we, the Palestinians, became the victim of victims”, “God is for all of us,” and “peace and settlements don’t go together.”
We traveled into the Judean desert this night and spent the remainder of our trip staying in Kibbutzes which are collective communities based on agriculture. Those who reside in a Kibbutz abide by a shared economy. Only three percent of Israelis live in these communities.
Day Eight: This day was way too hot. We traveled to Jericho and learned about the role it plays for Palestinians as well as its history. We ventured by cable car to the mountain on which the Mount of Temptation resides and enjoyed a nice lunch there. Amusingly, I think my glutes actually became more toned from all of the steep steps we climbed every day in the heat.
When people say that the salt content in the Dead Sea is high, believe them. While floating in the sea was an awesome experience, parts of my body stung and this was quite uncomfortable.
Day Nine: Off-roading was an experience! We drove through the Golan heights and learned about the conflict with Syria just a few miles from a war zone. What fascinates me most is how one can see both the Syrian border and the Jordan border within moments while traveling through Israel. I reflected greatly on my privilege when viewing the Syrian border as we were casually eating watermelon so close to a war zone, safe, while millions of Syrians have been displaced.
Day Ten: On our last day, we visited Ziv Hospital in the morning, and it is known for emergency medicine and treating Syrian refugees. We were able to tour the underground facilities that are protected in case of attacks.
We visited the city of Haifa later in the day. The view from Mount Carmel was breathtaking. After lunch, we heard Ethiopian women share their stories of migration at the Migrant Absorption Centre and visited the children’s classrooms. We did not have much time with them, but I enjoyed learning a little about their culture.
This was the most emotionally and mentally draining trip I have ever taken, but it was also incredibly life-changing and beautiful. I learned more during the past couple weeks than I have in most of my classes. I am so glad that I decided to take this opportunity. We laughed, we cried, we perspired a good amount, and we engaged in difficult conversations. Before our last dinner, we each shared our reasons for taking this trip and how we felt after the experiences we had.
All twenty-five of us are of different backgrounds and we were not afraid to challenge one another in the discussions we had for hours almost every night. Creating dialogue like this can do wonders and I can happily say that friendships were not broken, but rather made, through doing so on this trip. I genuinely hope that we can all take what we have learned and create dialogue on our campus because I do not see how progress can be made without understanding why those who hold opposing viewpoints do so. I was also able to have individual conversations with everyone on the trip and this certainly helped.
The Palestinian perspective was lacking on this trip, so I hope to hear more on that front by attending meetings and events focused on the experiences that Palestinians face. I know many of us are going to make the effort to do so after being exposed to so much and so little over the past couple weeks.
One night, we had an activity during which we had to place ourselves in the categories of “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree,” or “strongly agree” based on the statement. I have recorded the statements and how I responded to them below:
“Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish democracy with secure borders.” Agree.
“The Palestinians should give up the Right of Return.” Disagree. The results for this statement were interesting. Some of the Jewish students on the trip also chose “disagree” because they said if they believe in a Jewish state, Palestinians should also have the right to visit their homeland and it would be hypocritical to believe otherwise. I appreciated this.
“Israel should withdraw from the West Bank.” Strongly Agree.
“Peace, reconciliation, and compromise can only come through dialogue and NOT through isolation.” Strongly Agree.
In terms of the conflict itself, I lost some hope during this trip and still feel somewhat discouraged. I felt a large sense of disgust way too often. We all may desire peace, but peace looks different to each of us. Why is violence still used if doing so is not pushing us any closer to a solution? People kept saying “we have time,” but how do we have time when people are dying every day? I will never understand why people prioritize greed over human lives. Identity plays a large role in this conflict and I understand its importance, but how does treating groups of people as though their identities mean nothing and they are nothing contribute to one’s own? Leadership has no empathy. I think “taking sides” is tiring, but what I know for certain is that I will always be on the side of humanity.