After landing in Ben Gurion in June, my first four days were spent on an Encounter trip. Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The program I was invited to participate in was for North American Jewish Leadership. Before the trip started, we had two webinars and read a lot about Encounter’s philosophy and background. It was transparent that this trip would be showing our group the Palestinian perspective of the conflict. It was assumed that we were well-versed in the Israeli perspective. This was compelling to me, because I am often shocked by the vast differences of media portrayals of the same incidence.
The trip was packed from early morning to late evening every night, and filled with brilliant speakers and incredibly emotional sights. Rabbi David Stern, a past participant and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said “the four-day experience was a practice in meditation and deep breathing.” This could not be more true; many times, as we were listening to a speaker, I could feel my blood pressure rise. I have grown up with the Israeli perspective being the only narrative that I heard, and therefore it really is my narrative.
During the trip we saw first-hand the stark difference between Bethlehem, Ramallah, a Refugee Camp and East Jerusalem. We listened to speakers from the PLO, Combatants for Peace, Activists, Politicians, and Palestinians that deeply care about the welfare and future of their children.
There were too many distinct experiences to describe in one article. Sleeping in a Palestinian Christian’s home in Bethlehem we were able to talk about daily life. It was then that I learned that the father of the home woke up 4 hours before his shift begins every day to make it through the checkpoint and into Jerusalem to work at a construction site to try and put food on the table for his family. It does not take 4 hours to go through security. It takes 4 hours to stand in a long slow moving line with too few lanes open. The mother has been teaching 3rd grade at a school in Hebron for nearly 30 years, but during the second intifada movement in the west bank was severely restricted. Some days the checkpoints never opened at all. In order to keep her job, she slept on her classroom floor for 5 months, being away from her children all throughout the week.
These are common stories of Palestinians daily life. Everyone that Encounter invited to speak with our group spoke about peace. They hoped for peace. Not one of them called for the end of Israel, none of them downplayed Israel’s fear of security. Rather there was an overarching sense that the status quo is not good enough. That there is more that Israel could do to ease the pain and emotional degradation of Palestinians without compromising security.
We heard a lot about the “wall” the security barrier was discussed at length by many speakers, and we actually took a trip to the Palestinian side of the wall where we met local graffiti artists who were leaving their mark as we walked by. Seeing this enormous wall was emotional for many. All of the once lucrative businesses that lined the street were abandoned. With the wall’s placement commerce has ceased in many areas leaving families in poverty.
The wall is a difficult topic because in Israel’s eyes the wall has been a great success. The wall has stopped an uncountable number of terror attacks. Israelis are now able to ride on busses and sit at coffee shops with a greater sense of security. But the exact placement of the wall seems (from a novice like myself) happenstance. It seems like the wall has cut apart families, created much poverty, and separated entire communities from schools for their children. I wonder if the wall’s placement could have been handled with greater care?
We also walked the streets of Ramallah, an area under full Palestinian Authority. These streets and malls reminded me of NY City. There were booming businesses, a hustle and bustle feel and a sense of great wealth. I couldn’t help but wonder how Ramallah has become such an epicenter while other parts of the West Bank are clearly poverty stricken.
One of the most interesting presentations was given by Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian who teaches part time at Brandeis and heads the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He works with both Palestinians and Israelis doing large polls to see how we could come up with a peace proposal that would be accepted from both sides. He understands the non-negotiable issues and looks for other compromises that could raise enough concusses for a plan to be passed. This was somewhat devastating, hearing that all of the conventional wisdom of the day needs to be thrown out. Simply because there is no hope for a peace plan that resembles the Oslo Accords, it wouldn’t have the support. However, his research was very shocking that with apologies from both sides there is hope for peace.
The last presentation of the trip was the most gripping for me. We met with a Sulaiman khatib a Palestinian from Combatants for Peace. He has been nominated in 2017 for a Nobel Peace Prize for his continual work for peace in the Middle East but his personal story was painful. When he was fourteen his brother and he stabbed two IDF officers. Thankfully the officers survived. They escaped but by morning the two of them were found in their village and arrested. He spent the next ten years in an Israeli prison. He described the hunger strikes that the prisoners engaged in, and thankfully he survived those ten years. After his release from prison, he helped establish multiple non-profits working towards peace. He is dedicating his life to peace rather than violence, this is amazing given his childhood.
This trip has given me so much to think about. It has really shaken my blind uncompromising views on safety and security. I don’t diminish security needs, but I am now able to see the need for nuance in the discussion. Being able to meet Palestinians and walk the streets, and ruble roads of the West Bank, I was able to hear the personal stories and the everyday effects rather than just the political narratives that are portrayed in the media. This was a very hard lens to use for the rest of my time in Israel. I didn’t stay quiet about what I saw in the West Bank. I spoke with ever-Israeli cab driver, every rabbi, and every Israeli I could about the political situation and the status quo. I asked a lot of hard questions but most of all I listened. Of course there are two sides to every story, and both sides are valid and true.
There is humanity on both sides of the wall. There are stories of pain, stories of fear, and stories of hope. To hear Sulaiman Khatib’s first hand story, a story of true Teshuva (repentance) I have to have hope. Hope that we will one day have peace. Hope that we can live together rather than separately, hope that all of God’s children will live in safety, nourishment, and prosperity.