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Out on the Verge of the Rest of My Life

Posted by on January 1, 2019

I honestly can’t believe my time at the Arava Institute is coming to a close. I’ve finished all of my classes and taken all of my finals. Now, all that’s left to do is make the most of these final moments before packing up and boarding my flight. I’m really not ready to go home. Even the thought of waking up in North Potomac or Durham seems surreal. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and family, but I know that once I leave Kibbutz Ketura, things won’t really ever be the same.

Over the past four months, I have learned, changed, and grown in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Contrary to what I believed entering the program, I wouldn’t just be learning new perspectives on Israel and the conflict. Rather, my experience here has initiated a process that goes much deeper. While it would be impossible to encapsulate all of these thoughts and feelings within a single blog post, I’m going to provide a snapshot into my head and heart.

I had always thought of Israel being a Jewish State within a sea of enemies sworn to its destruction. I assumed the rejection of the U.N. Partition Plan, the War in 1948, and all of the fighting since stemmed purely from hateful antisemitism. These sentiments seemed to justify any actions Israel choose to take, understanding its security and even its existence are on the line. While these are important factors to consider, it may cause us to forget that ultimately it is the innocent people on both sides who simply want to live their lives are who will face some of the greatest impacts of the conflict. Speaking with Palestinians and Jordanians during my experience has revealed so much pain which I never knew existed. When I’ve heard about friends whose families fled for their lives during 1948 or 1967, who get questioned whenever they leave the Kibbutz bubble, and the majority of Arabs here who feel like there’s no hope or future where they’re from, I can’t just respond with talking points about why Israel was right. I truly feel for them. I get it. The Jewish people have suffered so much throughout history, and continue to today. Israel must be a safe haven for its residents and for Jews around the world to be able to come live happily and peacefully. But, it’s not as if every Palestinian – on either side of the green line – rejects this idea. In fact, I’ve seen exactly the opposite. My friends from the West Bank and Jordan understand how important freedom and hope for a better future are, because it’s precisely what they lack but so deeply desire.

Unfortunately, this conflict will not be solved upon the signing of an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leadership, nor does the mere absence of violence qualify as peace. It’s unrealistic to believe the deep divides between Jews and non-Jewish Arabs will suddenly vanish. Instead, we need to build trust. Programs like the Arava Institute will help people realize the humanity in one another and the universal desire for a better world. I’d love to see initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue, understanding, and friendship spread throughout the Middle East. Although the current political climate would make it incredibly difficult to bring people from countries like Lebanon, Syria, or Saudi Arabia together with Israelis, or even Palestinians from Gaza, it is such an important first step. If you see people on the other side as antisemitic terrorists or colonial militants, how can you ever expect there to be diplomatic ties between governments, let alone citizens who would value peaceful relations at all?

Nevertheless, I do believe that Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the international community, should advocate for some sort of agreement that would advance the difficult process of recognition. One of the most challenging pieces of the conflict is delegitimisation, whether expressed through discounting another’s identity, history, or national aspirations. Although acknowledgement in the broadest of terms may not be necessary for an armistice agreement, it is imperative to progress towards peace, and hope that all leaders which may be involved will embark on this process. To answer the “one-state, two-state, red-state, blue-state” question, I’m still for two states for two peoples but with a couple important caveats. First, Israel and a future Palestinian state will be inextricably linked. An agreement does not detach the two entities from one another, in fact, I believe it will require even greater cooperation. Palestinians get their water, electricity, and many of their jobs from Israel, not to mention how millions of Palestinians currently live inside Israel and hundreds of thousands of Israelis currently live inside what would become a future Palestinian state. Land swaps and direct Palestinian water access will be a start, but shared resources and borders necessitate a future of working together. Israelis and Palestinians both have close familial ties, demonstrate innovation and entrepreneurship, and are very welcoming culturally. This reality should open the door to partnerships between families, businesses, and communities. If the border remains as psychological as it is physical, then a two-state solution is just putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. Instead, each nation should be able to live in their country – with their people, pride, and history – while actively engaging with the other to harness the incredible potential in this region.

Knesset Menorah

Throughout the semester, my relationship with Israel has become more complex, as it should when learning more about such a complicated place. I’m just as much of a Zionist and Israel-advocate as I was the day I began this program. But, I am even prouder to sing the words of the Hatikvah now than I was before: “our hope, the two-thousand-year-old hope, will not be lost: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” I don’t just feel connected to Israel, but feel more committed now to its prosperity as a place I can call home.

My time in the Jewish State has also greatly influenced my Jewish identity. Since International Kallah five years ago, I’ve taken the answers I found then for granted, assuming they are just as true now as they were then. However, I’m no longer satisfied with that. How I understood G-D, living as an American Jew, and being part of the Jewish Community as a 16 year-old is no more reflective of myself than my sophomore year in high school is of my academic and professional ambitions today. I am starting to re-engage with some of the difficult questions which shape my Jewish identity. For example, do I believe in G-D, and if so, who/what do I believe G-D is? I know I want to believe in G-D, and believe that Abraham made a covenant with G-D, but also acknowledge that the relationship between Jews and a higher power might be no different than that of Greek Mythology. In all honesty, I’m scared to explore this question because I’m aware that the answer I find – or the understanding I develop – will surely change my life. To explore this question, alongside many others, I hope to participate in an immersive Jewish learning experience within the next couple years, possibly one I found based in Jerusalem designed for people with the exact same desire for religious exploration that I have. In the meantime, I have begun weekly Torah studies with a friend currently participating in that program, and want to interact with members of different types of Jewish communities when I return to the States.

Speaking of which, I’ve realized that I don’t merely want to resettle in the life I had before coming to the Institute. I want to go outside of my comfort zone, take risks, try new things, and meet new people. Over the last four months, I’ve been to a half-dozen new countries and explored throughout Israel and the West Bank, and there’s still so much to see in these places. But, I have a burning desire to explore my home country now. I want to visit everything from small towns and rural communities to state and national parks. My goal isn’t really to be a tourist, rather to develop an appreciation for people and nature which differ from what I know. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned since starting at Duke was “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” and it’s time to actually try out this philosophy. I want to take some trips where I don’t have a set destination, I just want to take a road trip and discover everything along the way. Every person I meet or place I go offers a unique opportunity to learn and grow. In particular, I want to indulge in the incredible environment which I plan to spend my career defending and replenishing.

Elliott with Duke Law Journal inside the Supreme Court of Israel

Throughout the semester, I’ve been asking myself where do I want to put my focus upon returning to Duke? First, I have really enjoyed writing these blog posts, which have not only provided me an outlet to share my experiences but helped me reflect upon them. To continue writing, I decided to apply to become an Opinion Columnist at Duke and was just accepted. So, look out for my pieces to be published every two weeks. Second, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for speaking with those whom I disagree with and a need to challenge my political perspectives. Thus, I want to further engage with POLIS, Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service, which brings together ideologically-diverse students to discuss political issues, learn from speakers, and brainstorm bipartisan solutions. Plus, I’ve constantly checked U.S. political news and seen the relentless attacks on our democracy and values, fueling my desire to get involved and make things better. Third, I want to continue my participation in the Jewish and Environmental communities at Duke, but with my transformed connections to these topics. Within Jewish Life at Duke, I want to keep participating in social events, but turn my focus toward more meaningful religious, service, and interfaith programming. On the environmental side, I want to spend less time learning about and raising awareness of issues, and put more emphasis on experiencing what nature has to offer and advocating to protect it. Fourth, and I think most importantly, I want to utilize my time to do what I really want.  Already, this meant signing up for a course called “Candidacy to Congress – Campaigns, Policies, and Politics,” organizing a tent for the Duke-UNC Basketball Game, and joining a pick-up soccer group. But, I want to take this a step further by avoiding scheduling my day from 9am to 11pm and constantly feeling like I’m behind on completing tasks from an endless checklist. I want to set aside more time spend time and go out with close friends. Getting dinner in Durham, visiting the farmers market, or taking a trip to the Eno shouldn’t only be at the start of the semester before the workload builds up. There’s little more important than having fun and meaningful experiences with some of the people you care most about. I want to take this to heart and really make the most of every day of the semester. During my semester abroad, I’ve recognized how fortunate I am to be a Blue Devil. The academics, extra-curricular, pre-professional, and personal experiences I’ve had have contributed so much to who I am as a student and as a person. I’ve been strongly reminded why I’m so proud to call Duke my home.

On that note, I want to say thank you to everyone who enabled me to come to the Arava Institute and all of the people here who have made it so special. After spending four months in the middle of the desert, it says a lot that I really don’t want to leave. While I’ve loved all the traveling and official programming, I feel like it will be the late nights hanging by the campfire, singing songs, learning Hebrew, and having meaningful and hilarious conversations that I will remember most. While writing this, I’m trying to hold back the tears in my eyes. I’m so grateful for the people here who were by my side throughout the roller coaster of the Arava Institute and all of its highs and lows. I’m humbled by the things we can do and the ways we can feel when we care about and trust one another. It’s truly incredible how people with such different backgrounds can come together to become such a supportive, loving community.

I want to conclude by sharing some of the lyrics to my favorite song. These words have inspired me ever since I first heard them on Spotify, and many of those who know me well understand how much I strive to live by them. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this journey – whether at the Arava Institute or reading my blog from afar. I look forward to sharing more of my experience and leveraging what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met to make the world a better, more happy and peaceful place.

From now on, there’s no looking back, full steam ahead on this one way track, from this day forward I will make a promise, to be true to myself and always be honest, for the rest of my life I will do what’s right, as I step out on the verge of the rest of my life” -Verge, by Owl City.

One Response to Out on the Verge of the Rest of My Life

  1. Larita

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I can connect to so many of your thoughts/feelings Elliot – Your Arava friend L.

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