So last Thursday and Friday I went on this trip called encounter, which takes current and future Jewish diaspora leaders into the west bank to hear Palestinian narratives. Or to quote from their website (encounterprograms.org): "Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to providing global diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life."
One of my goals that I had from the outset of this experience was to write an awesome blog entry about it. I wanted to go, absorb as much as I could (while still being critical), and then share it with people who don't have the opportunity to go on encounter. I set the bar high, I might write 2 entries, because this experience and these people deserve that.
While being in Israel, it can be very easy to forget the conflict is even happening. It is not a part of my everyday reality, I go to school, maybe the gym, hang out with friends, and none of that is effected by what is going on in the west bank. Even though this is the case, there are people (on both sides of the conflict) who have to deal with a lot because of this situation. This is a reality, and I wanted to go see what some Palestinians had to say for themselves.
I was definitely nervous for the trip. I wanted to go on it because I had an easier time than I want to admit, to being overly critical of the Palestinian Arabs, and dismissing their claims, because they are "the other." I knew this was wrong, so I wanted to challenge myself as a person and also as a future rabbi to go on this program and really see what was going on and see individual people and hear their experiences. It is hard to deny some one rights when you have sat with them face to face and talked to them on a person to person level.
We did a lot over the course of the 2 days that I was there. We were mainly in Bethlehem and the area around it. We heard from a lot of different people about their personal experiences living in the west bank, and the hardships that they face. We saw the safety barrier that is being built around areas of the west bank and learned how some people are affected by it. We each had a home stay with a Palestinian family. There was a lot!!
I encountered a lot of people and a lot of viewpoints that were very problematic to me and my conception of Israel and the Jewish people. I am still trying to sort out all of the experiences I had, and come to more conclusions about what I saw and heard and how I will take concrete actions based on these conclusions.
The biggest problem I had while being in Bethlehem was that I could not believe that Jews were treating other people so terribly. As a Jew growing up I was taught to have pride for my religion/culture, I was taught about the accomplishments of Jews and how relative to our size we have done a lot, and won more nobel prizes, etc. I was always taught that being a good Jew, meant being a good person. We have all these laws and expectations for ourselves, and I always thought we were held up to a higher standard. We should be more moral, conduct ourselves better than others. We talk about being "a light unto the nations" (and while this phrase is definitely problematic, and I can address that another time) if we want to say that, than we should act that way.
I did not see this happening in the west bank. At all. For example, we were speaking with this woman Sheerin about her village. She lives in Al-walaje, a small arab village in the west bank. The current plan is for the security wall to be build around the village, totally encircling it, and they only way to get to the rest of the west bank (when the wall is complete) will be to go through a tunnel check point run by Israeli soldiers. The current check points are notoriously unreliable, and can sometimes take hours to get through. This check point will be in addition to the checkpoint in bethlehem that they would have to go through to get into Israel if they are even able to get the permits to get there, which is extremely difficult. If you want to argue that this security is necessary because of what happened during the second intifada, fine, but there MUST be a better way to go about doing this.
Sheerin was telling us about all the ways the wall will affect her and her village. Her house will be surrounded on three sides by the wall, and another house near hers, one of its walls will actually be part of the security barrier and so all the windows will be completely sealed. Her house is on a hill, along with the rest of the village, and from there you can look down at a valley, and it is just a beautiful view. It was breathtaking, I tried to take some pictures but they didn't do it justice. Another tragedy of this wall is that it is going to take away this view.
Sheerin also took us to this one woman's house, whose house will NOT be within the security barrier. She claimed that it is because Israel didn't want to give up more land to have her be within the boarders of the barrier. As hesitant as I am to believe this, there really doesn't seem like a good reason why they can't move the wall a little bit (it really isn't that much at all) to keep her within the village. Instead she is going to be totally cut off, and her house is going to be surrounded by an electric fence. wtf.
I'm not here to argue for or against the wall, I don't yet have enough information to come to an informed opinion on that. BUT even if you want to argue for the existence of the wall, there MUST and IS a better way to go about building it. It just seems like the people who decided where the wall should go were super paranoid, and treating every Palestinian as if they were themselves a suicide bomber. Palestinians are people too, and it disgusts me how they are being dehumanized and restricted by current plans for the wall. This is no way to treat other people.
The first day we went to an elementary school called the hope flowers school, which is a private Palestinian school. We learned about the special counselling services they offer for the kids there. We spoke with Ghada who is one of the leaders of the school, and whose father founded the school. She was speaking about how many kids in the school that have been traumatized by Israeli soldiers. She mentioned that there were kids that had been traumatized by having their houses searched by Israeli soldiers. So again, maybe these house searches are necessary, but I'm sure there must be ways to conduct them that don't traumatize these kids. There are many people we heard from that get scared when they see a yarmulke, or hear Hebrew being spoken. That really broke my heart to hear, but at the same time, after hearing what everyone had to say, I am not surprised.
One of the parts that I think is going to stay with me the most is my homestay. Me and my friend Allie, stayed together at this Palestinian-Muslim family's home. Attalla, was the "man of the house" he and his wife were so kind and welcoming. They were such sweet people. These are the people that I am going to think of when I am tempted to marginalize Palestinian's rights and quality of life, in favor of some policy that will benefit the Jews, but at a cost. They were so warm, and really Palestinian hospitality is incredible.
I left this trip on Friday feeling lost and confused and angry and sad all at the same time. One of the challenging parts of all this was that right after we got back, we had an hour to get ready before shabbat. I went from being in the west bank, to being in services in less than 2 hours. It was especially hard because I felt so let down by the conduct of my fellow Jews who were enacting these policies and allowing so much b.s to happen in the west bank. There is a prayer that we say at every service, called the Aleinu, which thanks God for making us unique as a people. While I was saying it this Friday night I was thinking about how this is not true, and I was praying for it to be true. We should be a good example of how to behave and conduct one's life in a positive way. There are Jews who do things that certainly don't set us apart, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, I pray for our behavior as a people (especially the way we act towards Palestinians) to exhibit this. We are told to be kind to "the stranger dwelling within our midst" and as a whole this is not happening here.
I went to a shabbat lunch on Saturday, and ended up speaking a little about my experiences and getting into an argument. I was still hesitant to share my experiences as I was still processing the whole trip, but I shared some. I was sharing what I had seen, and how bad the situation was in the west bank for many people. One person at the lunch (who had made aliyah and served in the army) was arguing back that actually relative to the other Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon and Gaza, the Palestinians living in the West Bank had it better. While this might certainly be the case, it still doesn't make it OK. Just because the unemployment in Lebannon for the Palestinians is at like 60% or more (I don't remember), doesn't make the 43% unemployment in Bethlehem ok (again not that this is entirely Israel's fault, there are also problems within Palestinian society and government).
I was accused of swallowing the propaganda that encounter had fed me. Which really angered me. I think one of the great things about encounter is that we are presented with many different viewpoints (yes all Palestinian, but different) and we are not told what to think, we are left to do what we want and come to the conclusions we want about the experience we had. Even though I am very aware that some of our speakers presented things with a certain slant, you can't just totally invalidate everything they say because of that, or everything I saw. In addition there is so much propaganda on both sides. He was arguing that the route of the security barrier was carefully planned and thought out for maximum security. Maybe this is true, but then how come when the village of Al-walaje was requesting the route to be slightly adjusted the only reason the Israeli defense gave for the route to remain the same was that if it moved it would be too close to the biblical zoo. That doesn't sound like security to me, that sounds ridiculous. As Sheerin said, the animals are already in cages, what do they care?
A side comment that was made during this argument was especially infuriating to me, even though I didn't respond to it at the time. One person said how it's a problem that Jews love arabs more than they love other Jews (in reference to being sympathetic to the Palestinians situation). GAHHHHHHHH. I'm not sure if he was including me in this category, but seriously? Do you know what I'm in school to do? Do you know that I am dedicating my LIFE to serving the Jewish people? How dare you say that. I wasn't offending that he was implying that I like Arabs, I would say that I decide on a person to person basis, but that is the same for any nationality/ethnicity, etc. I was furious because of the way I felt discredited and how this definitely happens in circles I run in. Once you show sympathy towards the Palestinian situation people will brush you off as a crazy liberal, or as anti-Israel. I think this is partially a coping mechanism because if everyone acknowledged what was happening, it would be much harder to endorse the current policies of the state of Israel.
Just because as Jews we have been persecuted and have had horrible things happen to us as a people does NOT give us the right to treat others like shit. That makes us no better than the people who did that to us. That really bothers me.
This is also difficult because I am not anti-Israel. By making this conflict so black and white it makes it difficult to come to any solutions. One of the things that I said I would like to work on after this experience is to change the conception of Jews who are sympathetic to the Palestinians. We should not automatically be labelled as anti-Israel, or self-hating Jews. I want to be able to express myself in a way that both supports Israel's right to exist and right to protect itself, but that also is critical of the ways that Israel is going about doing this.
While this blog entry has been very negative, I do think that there is hope. The group of people I went on encounter with was impressive. I met a lot of future and current Jewish leaders who were compassionate and thoughtful, and just great people, and we can help shape the way our communities talk about these issues. Also not all Israelis act in the same way, there are Israelis who are also against what is going on in the west bank, and there are efforts to improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians. There isn't enough, but it's out there and hopefully it will continue to grow.
I don't remember who exactly, but one of our speakers said that God put us here together for a reason... He said that when we cooperate and are able to make peace that we will be able to benefit a lot from each other. I thought this was beautiful and hopeful and I would like to end with this thought.
Thank you for reading. I encourage comments/questions/anything, but most of all, if you have the chance GO ON ENCOUNTER. It is sooo important.