JERUSALEM—My last days in Jerusalem left me far from comfortable. I saw many infuriating things, but one that especially sticks out in my memory was actually one of the most benign.
As I wandered around the Old City, I saw one young Jewish boy with a kippa and payot on his bicycle and two Palestinian boys with sticks. As I walked, the back-and-forth taunting intensified. They must have been 7 years old, and they faced off on the empty stone street. They backed away from each other, and they all seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move, just as their respective leaders always seem to in peace talks. Eventually, my comrade scattered the kids, but I couldn’t help feeling defeated. They were so young. The mutual hatred and fear felt inevitable.
This one moment may be insignificant; kids fight all over the globe. But it did fit in with the plethora of hopeful and discouraging experiences I had over my ten weeks in the region. Now that I’m home, it feels appropriate to write “concluding thoughts,” or something along those lines, but my thoughts so far have been anything but conclusive.
I left the Ben-Gurion airport—after spending four hours in priority security procedures because of a Palestinian kafia and documentary on the West Bank found in my bag—feeling a web of contradictory emotions. After witnessing the numerous injustices in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I could not help feeling anger. I felt anger for the man in the town of Siswaya whose village shrunk from 500 families to 43 as Israeli forces filled their caves and settled their land. I felt anger for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the West Bank, where even out houses are demolished by the Israeli government, when yards away red tile roofs and cookie cutter houses mark the settlement Karmel next door. I felt anger for the disproportionate distribution of resources in the “united city” of Jerusalem. I felt anger for the checkpoints in the city of Hebron, where settlers cut down Palestinian olive trees and videos reveal settlers attacking Palestinian schoolchildren and even the aid workers there to protect them.
I felt anger for these and many more injustices, but this is not the whole picture. I went dancing in Ramallah, a thriving city in the West Bank. I even visited a hilltop, caravan settlement in the desert of the West Bank, and was welcomed with open arms. And I love so much of Jerusalem: the shuks and the suqs, picking figs and rosemary on my walk home, the hidden gardens, watching tourist groups at the various holy sites, the quiet of Shabbat, the mix of sugar and sage in Bedouin tea, arguments of who serves the best hummus or falafel, and the excitement of living somewhere in the paper almost every day.
And now that I am home, everyone wants to know “how it was.” Every time this question arises, I feel torn between giving a tirade on all the pain I witnessed that I want everyone else to understand, talking about my long walks through streets that smelled like cardamom or nectarines whose juice would spill down to my elbows, and everything in between. I haven’t mastered a party line to get both messages across, but my goals moving forward are the following:
1) Show Americans what their government is supporting. This isn’t a distant conflict that Americans can claim they have no place to meddle in: our tax dollars fund many of the atrocities I saw. The Israeli army protects the settlers in the West Bank, and don’t protect Palestinians when these settlers use violence against them. While many Israelis claim that these settlers are extremists and terrorists, they cannot be so ostracized as long as Israel continues to protect them and sponsor their continued development. As long as Israel is supporting them, so is America.
2) Encourage constructive criticism. As an often-fierce critic of Israeli policy, I have been stunned by and unhappy with much of the criticism I hear in America. This is not a one-sided conflict by any means, and in order for a viable peace to be possible, both sides and perspectives must be recognized as legitimate. One frustrating criticism I have encountered is gaffs at Israel’s security claims. Israel does have security concerns, and while I disagree with many of the actions done in the name of security, the answer isn’t to dismiss the fact that there are security concerns. Outright criticism is not helpful. The situation is complex and deserves no one-sided oversimplification.
3) Don’t speak about Israelis as one unit. As with any society, there is a wide political spectrum in Israel. Further, the civil society is more vibrant and active than I’ve ever witnessed. From soldiers who give lectures and tours about their experiences in the occupied territories, to the weekly protest of the settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, to the women of Machsom Watch who watch over the checkpoints in the West Bank each day, to the bereaved families on both sides who discuss their loss together, the variety of organizations working towards peace are numerous and differ in strategies. Even for opinions I don’t support, there is a plethora of organizations working for change.
4) Read multiple sources when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s astounding how different the narratives are, and how seemingly vital “facts” can be overemphasized or omitted. I no longer believe objectivity exists, which is fine, but more than one voice must be heard to at least hint at the reality. On this note, avoid hard to define and loaded words, such as “terrorist.”
5) Keep learning, and talk to people. This conflict, like most, so easily becomes numbers and figures, and thus dehumanized, but any “solution” from the top would be futile if the situation on the ground remained the same. The other issue with the media portrayal of it often depicts it as hopeless and never-ending, but being there and witnessing the constant agency warrants hope. Hearing from the people who experience the conflict day in and day out reminds me that peace and coexistence are possible. At least talking to some people does.
As time puts more distance between me and those enlightening months, maybe I will have more definable goals or conclusions. For the time being, I will keep learning, keep an open mind, keep hope, and encourage others to do the same. Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I have ever been in, and I hope to find myself in this region again soon.