With only two weeks remaining on my journey in Israel, I’m starting to think about what this experience will mean when I return home. My thoughts and feelings have changed in ways that I could never have imagined. But, I’m struggling to figure out how my time at the Arava Institute should shape my interactions with other people and the world around me. At the core of this internal debate is a very important question: What responsibilities do I have?
Coming into this experience, I felt my primary responsibility as a Zionist was to defend the State of Israel. The Jewish people have faced existential threats ever since Biblical times. Israel is not only our homeland, where our ancestors lived and always strived to return to, but is the one place we can be welcome in the face of anti-Semitism. I believed then, as I believe now, that Israel must have everything it needs to protect itself against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, or any other entity that seeks to destroy it. Attacks against innocent civilians can never be tolerated. I feel responsible for the Jewish State’s right to exist in the land of Israel in safety, security, and prosperity. I will continue to support U.S. defense aid to Israel and opposing aggression from Israel’s adversaries. I believe this is not only the right thing to do, but absolutely necessary for Israel’s survival and the safety of its citizens.
However, there is an important distinction between defending the State of Israel’s existence and the policies of its government. Throughout my experience here, I’ve seen and heard many things which I disagree with. For example, racial profiling is used to identify potential terror suspects. In the absence of a ban on this practice, Israeli soldiers are permitted to check Arabs simply because of their identity. It is true that a majority of terror attacks inside Israel are done by Arab citizens, but I think its wrong for all other Arabs to be treated differently because of this. Nobody should be assumed a suspect for terrorism simply because of their skin color or language, especially by a state founded on the principle of equal rights for all its citizens. My Israeli Arab friends at the Institute are no more likely to hurt innocent people than my Jewish Israeli friends are, nor are their families.
A couple weeks ago, I took a taxi out of Eilat with a couple friends. We told the driver that we would plan to take another car the rest of the way back to Ketura. He told our group, “don’t get in a car with an Arab driver.” In the backseat, my friend said “I’m an Arab.” The driver was taken back, asking “You’re from the United States though, right?” My friend responded, “no, I’m from here,” leaving him speechless. After I paid for the ride, the driver told me that he didn’t mean to offend my friend but was just looking out for our safety. But, assuming there may be safety concerns with any Arab is the same mindset for supporting the Muslim Ban, the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, halting acceptance of Syrian refugees, and preventing the caravan from Central America from entering the United States. All of these policies place blame for the actions of individuals of a particular race on the race as a whole, arguing safety is compromised because of some “bad hombres” or “unknown middle easterners” who look like them. Everyone has a right to feel and be safe. But, safety for one population within a country shouldn’t come at the expense of another.
I went to visit my friends’ home in the village of Idna in the West Bank. Throughout my visit, everyone was incredibly welcoming. Even though many of the people I met couldn’t speak much English, they would offer me coffee, ask about where I’m from, and express how glad they were that I was there. At first, I was hesitant to express about who I am or what I believe, but my friend who I was visiting encouraged me to be open and honest. So, I shared with many people that I’m an American Jew studying abroad in Israel. I wasn’t physically threatened, kicked out of shops, or even given dirty looks. Rather, they smiled, said that they hadn’t met someone Jewish before, and wished they had a permit to visit Israel or a passport that would enable them to travel the world. They are good people trying to have a good life.
Unfortunately, they face all kinds of barriers due to Israeli control. Palestinians are prohibited from making any new structures on their property without a permit, which are almost always denied. Considering these rules are most strictly applied to Area C (Israeli civil and military control), some are built without permits in Area B (Palestinian villages) but are vulnerable to demolition. Despite rising populations in the villages, they are prohibited from expanding into the surrounding areas. When my friend wanted to make a home for himself, he had to build an extra floor to his parents’ home. Upon leaving one’s property, there are sometimes Israeli soldiers who will check their ID’s, including through pop-up checkpoints; one of which was set up within a hundred feet of a house I was inside. Not many jobs are available for Palestinians in the West Bank, especially not very high paying ones. As a result, many people create their own retail or construction businesses, or apply for permits to work in Israel. All Palestinians imports and exports are managed by Israel, which severely limits resource movement and connection to the global economy. Water and electricity are also owned by Israel, meaning Palestinians must purchase these resources from the Israeli Administration in order to access them.
During the visit, my friends and I went to the city of Hebron which houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Jews believe that our patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah) were buried here, which is an important reason why Jews maintained a presence there for since Biblical times until being kicked out in 1929. This site is also holy for Muslims, and Muslims have lived there continuously for over a thousand years. As a result of the 6 Day War in 1967, Israel regained control of the city and many Palestinians fled. In the following years, Jewish settlers came and the city was divided into two parts, Palestinian controlled and Israeli controlled, though Jews on the Israeli side comprise a small percentage of the residents. With many instances of violence, especially the devastating shooting of Palestinians in the mosque in 1994, I knew the city would be very tense. As we were walking around, Israeli soldiers were standing in front of many streets, telling any Palestinian who approached that they were not allowed to pass. When I chose to enter the Jewish side of the Tomb, I was welcomed by the soldier, who directed me to the synagogue entrance. While I was fortunate to have experienced such a meaningful place, the tension outside was also felt inside. As an American Jew, I felt safe among Israeli soldiers and as people drove by, but some of my friends said they had never felt more unsafe. The tense atmosphere was also present among shops; many have closed down as Palestinians have moved away from the Old City, and remaining shop owners struggle, but said they stayed to prevent the area from being absorbed by Israel in their absence. Many shops have nets hanging above to catch trash thrown down from settlers, which I saw to include food waste, plastic containers, and even bottles of urine. As difficult as these conditions were, I expected them coming in. But, in such a historic and holy city, it was pretty depressing to witness the segregation and constant threat of violence. There must be a way to respect Jewish and Muslim ties to the area while enabling everyone to exercise their rights and freedoms.
This visit to the West Bank was just one of many eye-opening interactions I’ve had while at the Institute. But, I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. Growing up, I was always taught to do the right thing, but there could be many perspectives of what the “right thing” is. On the one hand, I feel inclined to speak out against the injustices I’ve seen. As a firm believer in democracy, freedom, and human rights, I struggle when I see these values being compromised by anyone, especially when its the Jewish State which I’m so deeply connected to. But, I’m not an Israeli. I didn’t grow up under a constant threat of terror. I haven’t lost friends while they were serving in the military. I wasn’t forced to take cover in a rocket shelter, nor did I fear getting on a school bus because of the possibility of it blowing up. I couldn’t pretend to understand the trauma induced by the Intifadas, terrorist attacks, or even the psychological impact of being demonized across the globe. Furthermore, I’m only seeing the current situation; I don’t know all of the reasons that these restrictions were established. I was not involved with the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) decisions, nor do I really know about the decisions made by Palestinian leadership. I wasn’t in Israel when any of these policies were enacted. Plus, I’m not even an Israeli citizen.
So, what right do I have to try to influence Israel? I think this question really depends on who you ask. Today, I had an intense conversation with an Israeli friend of mine who believes foreign powers should stop trying to influence the region, and instead leave the future up to the people living here who will be most affected by it. This is a sentiment I’ve heard from some Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, who don’t want American or other external pressure to determine what happens here. When I asked her what she sees my responsibility as, she said none; I can have my perspectives but should be up to Israelis to decide what Israel does. However, I see the situation differently. Israel isn’t just a state for its citizens; it’s also for Jewish people across the world. The diaspora has contributed to Israel economically, politically, and culturally since its founding. As a Jew with a close connection to my homeland, I feel like I have a stake in what happens here. Decisions by the Israeli government impact my ability to come to Israel and how I’m treated here, but also influence how others perceive me as a Zionist in the United States. Just as I feel a responsibility to support Israel, my homeland as a Jew and my ally as an American, I feel like I have a right to try and change it for the better. Zionism didn’t end when the State of Israel was declared in 1948, the pursuit of a prosperous Jewish State and the debate over what that means is ongoing. I feel part of this conversation, and contributing to it means expressing what I feel and working toward a better Israel.
As I start to think about what I want to share with people when I return home about what I’ve learned, one things stands above all else: People are people! When we’re dancing dabke (an Arab folk dance), lighting the candles for Hannukah, tasting kanafe (traditional Arab desert), mourning the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, learning words in Arabic, or saying the Kiddush at Shabbat dinner, we come together as one community.
I’m recognizing an important responsibility I have to help people understand this. The Arava Institute is the only place in the entire world that brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Internationals to learn, play, and develop a better understanding of the conflict, together. Only 59 other individuals had the opportunity over the past four months to experience what I’ve experienced. I am eager to show people the beauty and strength in unity and diversity, something difficult to truly understand without having lived it. I want my friends and family to share my desire for a better life for ALL who live in this region. This doesn’t contradict my love for Israel or my concern over some of the things it does. In fact, it aligns with my Judaism, my Zionism, and my humanity. Every day at 11:11, I make a wish for peace, love, health, happiness, safety, justice, healing, life, and goodness. My goal is to inspire those around me to have the same wish for Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Americans, and all who live on Earth.