Meeting the Middle East

Last summer I was supposed to go to Israel, but things spiraled out of control. I watched the news as three Israeli boys were kidnapped and killed hitchhiking from a settlement in the West Bank. I watched as the IDF launched a search and rescue mission which killed five Palestinians and resulted in hundreds of arrests without charge and hundreds of homes demolished.

My trip was officially cancelled when the rockets from Gaza started flying. I was shocked by the numbers I was reading — thousands of civilians in Gaza killed by Israeli rockets and tanks. Hospitals and schools leveled. Eighty-thousand people displaced. Ceasefires agreed upon and then broken by Hamas. It got so bad, the UN interceded. Sean Hannity went a little crazy defending his pro Israel position. I remember showing this clip to my girlfriend at the time, reveling in how insensitive Hannity could be.


Perhaps most shocking to me was how incredibly conservative my Facebook feed became after I started posting articles highlighting Israel’s terror on Gaza. My friends, mostly Jewish, having just come back from Israel on birthright trips, descended on me with angry retorts and frustration. “Hamas uses its people as human shields,” they said. “Tel Aviv is getting rocketed daily,” they said. They wouldn’t recognize that next to none of Gaza’s rockets ever hit Israeli ground. And somehow they were lost on the ethics of air striking hospitals.

But there was one argument that I couldn’t ever adequately respond to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been there.” It was true — I hadn’t. Eventually I dropped the topic, having probably lost a lot of my Jewish Facebook friends. The conflict in Gaza ended, and my life moved on.

I was pretty close to going on a birthright trip myself. My mom’s Jewish, and I spent a good portion of my later childhood going to Temple Emanuel’s Shwayder camp every summer. After aging out of Shwayder, lots of kids go on IST (Israel Study Trip), a month-long excursion to Poland and Israel. Many go on the dime of Birthright Israel, a foundation that pays for American Jews to travel to their “homeland.” I know lots of people who went on IST, and who encouraged me to do the same. Had I enjoyed Shwayder camp, had I felt comfortable with Shwayder’s pronounced nationalist support of Israel and the IDF, maybe I would’ve gone with them.

My goal in writing this is to explain why I am so, so glad that I didn’t.

In January of 2014, I found out about Meet the Middle East. MTME is a secular travel program that seeks to educate its participants on the Israel/Palestine issue from both sides, and do its best to show the reality of the conflict. After I was accepted to the program, I started going to bi-weekly classes with the travel group and learned about a ton of stuff, ranging from info about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to topics of identity, relationships and listening skills. It was really great not only to learn so much about the region, but also to become close friends with the people I would inevitably be going on the trip with.

When our group finally convened at DIA on June 8th, I was simultaneously very prepared for the trip and not prepared at all. I had a lot of opinions about the conflict, about Islamophobia and Israeli occupation, based on things we had learned in class and the way I saw things go down in Gaza last summer. But I had no experience to back anything up. Like my Facebook friends pointed out, I hadn’t been there. I couldn’t know what it was really like.

We landed in Tel Aviv, and quickly we faced our first obstacle: one of our tour leaders, Iman, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was pulled aside by customs to be questioned and searched. We waited over an hour on the bus for her with no way to communicate. During our layover in Philadelphia, Iman had told us that this was very likely to happen. She told us stories about Israeli security interrogating, abusing and humiliating her and others in the airport and at checkpoints all over the West Bank. Our bus driver called the process a “free massage,” in hopes of lightening our spirits. It didn’t.

The trip proved to be a deluge of activities packed into each day, with a lot of highs and lows. I couldn’t possibly talk about everything that happened, so instead I’ll frame my experience by describing things I didn’t expect to see and feel.

Violence is really normalized.

No matter where we were in Israel, whether it was Jerusalem or the Golan Heights or Nablus in the West Bank, there was a significant undercurrent of violence that I didn’t expect to see. The IDF’s presence was pervasive and at times, threatening. Soldiers not much older than me casually patrolled the streets with massive automatic weapons strapped to their backs. In Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian city of Hebron, the IDF was posted at every corner. We could see cameras installed atop vacant buildings panning to follow our tour’s every move. We were stopped multiple times and told to present our passports. The streets were empty aside from a batmobile-looking military cruiser that circled the neighborhood.

In Nablus, the biggest Arab city in the West Bank, there were huge posters everywhere honoring “martyrs” who had either bombed or otherwise resisted Israeli forces. Names of families who died in the Second Intifada (cira 2000) were enshrined on walls in the old city. Because the old city is extremely dense, the IDF’s strategy for taking out Palestinian militants was to use tanks to bulldoze and rocket their way through civilian’s houses in order to reach their targets. Our tour guides explained this as we stood on rubble from fifteen years ago. Nearby, a local butcher was killing a chicken to sell in the market. As we left, I caught a glimpse of the chicken on the chopping block, decapitated, body still twitching.

Getting our passports checked. PC: Kelly Guerin
Getting our passports checked. PC: Kelly Guerin
In Nablus PC: Tatiana Talesnick
In Nablus PC: Tatiana Talesnick
Seen in Hebron PC: Kelly Guerin
Seen in Hebron PC: Kelly Guerin

Nobody really wants to happily live together.

One of the most significant and memorable days of the trip was in Bethlehem, where our group spent the morning in a large refugee camp bordered by Israel’s separation wall, and the afternoon in one of the 20-odd Israeli settlements just outside of the city. The refugee camp, Aida, hosts almost 5,000 Palestinians who have now been displaced for generations by Israeli expansion. It’s extremely over-populated, and poverty is out of control. Because they’re right next to the separation wall, clashes with the IDF are frequent — children sometimes take to throwing rocks at soldiers.

The separation wall is completely covered in graffiti, including a few pieces by Banksy. In Aida, a large portion of the wall was completely blackened. Our tour guide explained that a few years ago, some local children started building a fire at the edge of the wall every night. Eventually they busted a small hole through the wall and climbed through, just to prove that they could. Dozens of kids were arrested. One was killed.

Understandably, lots of these local kids end up dealing with PTSD and other stress-related disorders (such as bedwetting), so a clinic/community center opened up nearby to help serve the refugee camp. When the director of the center spoke to our group, he emphasized that the organization is all about non-violent resistance. He said that Martin Luther King Jr. was a personal hero of his. But, he conceded, with all the trauma these people have experienced, it can be very difficult to stay peaceful.

When we talked to an Israeli settler on the patio of his modest home that afternoon, he also said he wanted peace. He saw the settlements as a way for Israelis to “extend a hand of peace” to Arabs in the West Bank. Granted, not all settlers see things this way. The settler we talked to said that almost all of his neighbors were far more conservative than him. They feared for their safety. They wanted to keep the settlement completely closed off to Arabs. But the guy we talked to disagreed. He, too, cited MLK as a personal hero.

When we asked if he would want a world where his children could live alongside Palestinians peacefully, he said he would prefer that things remain mostly separate. For example, he said he would never allow his son to marry an Arab woman. He’s proud of his ethnic, religious and cultural heritage. He couldn’t stand to see it changed by Palestine.

It became clear that while factions on both sides would like peace, nobody is willing to fully accept the idea of integration.

The blackened wall in Aida PC: Alex Gomez-Meade
The blackened wall in Aida PC: Alex Gomez-Meade
Another view of the wall
Another view of the wall
Lots of cats in Israel. This was in Aida PC: Kelly Guerin
Lots of cats in Israel. This was in Aida PC: Kelly Guerin

Gender politics are completely different.

We must have been pretty conspicuous, as a big group of Americans, but the amount of attention the girls on our trip received from Palestinian and Israeli dudes was completely unprecedented. I could say more about what some of my friends on the trip experienced, but I don’t want to share anything they might be embarrassed by. Let’s just say it was bad.

Almost every professional we encountered in every capacity was male. Males were in charge of enforcing the dress code for women in holy sites. Pretty much all of our tour guides were male. High schoolers we met in Bethlehem and Nazareth described not being able to date, unless they intended to get married. The divorce rate is next to 0%.

I went back and forth about this issue — was the seeming inequality I saw something that should change, or just a matter of cultural differences? As an American, is my opinion and perspective more valid than a Palestinian? I really don’t know, but having met some really great, funny, intelligent girls in the cities we met, I wish that they could have the freedoms I enjoy. God knows they deserve it.

We met some really great kids in Bethlehem. I'm still Snapchatting with them. PC: Kelly Guerin
We met some really great kids in Bethlehem. I’m still Snapchatting with them. PC: Kelly Guerin

Palestinians are remarkably restricted.

I knew the facts about the occupation. I knew that Israel limits and sometimes cuts off Palestine’s utilities. I knew that Palestinians can’t freely move about the West Bank, and they can only leave the country via Jordan with a special permit. But I didn’t realize how crushing the reality of the situation is. Kids grow up in Palestine knowing that they will probably never leave. Racial profiling is blatant. It isn’t even up for debate.

Israeli opinions of the Palestinian people ranged pretty widely, but were all different shades of conservative. Our Israeli tour guide in the Golan Heights seemed sympathetic towards Palestine, but said something along the lines of: “the fact is, every single suicide bomber, every IUD, every rocket launched at Israel, is coming from the Palestinian people.” It reminded me of the rhetoric I’ve heard in defense of discriminatory police practice in the States. To put the issue simply, Palestinians are burdened with an unfair degree of mistrust. The many hundreds of thousands of people living in the West Bank who simply want to live a happy life must put up with being a second-class civilian solely because of their race.

View from the Holocaust museum PC: Kelly Guerin
View from the Holocaust museum PC: Kelly Guerin
Seen in Hebron
Seen in Hebron

Israel isn’t a holy land. It’s a tourist site.

It quickly became very clear that Israel and Palestine experience a massive influx of tourists from all over the world. Every holy site we visited was packed with tourists, and most of them didn’t seem to have much reverence or religious fervor. It was hard to feel the presence of God, for example, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — which was extremely crowded and noisey. Clergy paced around reprimanding people for not wearing appropriate clothing. Everybody had their phone out, taking pictures the entire time.

In Hebron, we saw a mural commissioned by the settlers that depicted a warped future where the Dome of the Rock was bulldozed and replaced by what would be the Third Holy Temple. That really shook me. Is this really what millions of people all across the world have died for? Is this really the source of such a horrible situation for Palestine? A bunch of cluttered churches, mosques and temples for tourists to indifferently trample through?

The mural in Hebron PC: Kelly Guerin
The mural in Hebron PC: Kelly Guerin

Maybe my biggest takeaway from the experience is that every party in this issue — Israel, Palestine, America, is suffering from a lack of perspective. Most Israelis are center-right, maybe a little bit too nationalist, but enjoying an intentional ignorance about what it’s like to live in the occupied territories. They’ve been told that Arabs are all violent terrorists, and they trust their military to protect them. They’re wealthy, they have lots of freedom, they travel the world, they lead the lives they want to.

Palestinians are frustrated, afraid, traumatized, and see the occupation as a slow destruction of their entire way of life. They’re under constant surveillance by an army that they feel shouldn’t even exist. Maybe they have family involved in Hamas. They might have grown up with anti-semitism, and it’s ingrained in their values.

And crucially, neither can have the experience I was able to. Nobody can swim in the Mediterranean and then go shopping in Nablus. Nobody can take in the beauty of the Sea of Galilee and then stand under the enormous presence of the separation wall. Only we as Americans have the privilege to see the issue from both sides, and yet by and large we refuse to. Instead we go on trips that are only designed to confirm our biases. I honestly don’t understand why.

I don’t understand why my liberal friends are happily celebrating the legalization of gay marriage and supporting Black Lives Matter, yet fully stand behind a militarized apartheid in Israel, which is oppressing millions of Arabs because of religious ideology and ethnic fear-mongering. Maybe part of the issue is that most Americans don’t even understand that being pro-Israel is a politically conservative stance to take. Maybe we’re far enough away from it all that it’s not worth thinking much about. Maybe we’re still hurting from 2001. We’d like to assume that people who look like us in the Middle East are on our side.

So, what side am I on? I’m on the side of peace — the kind of peace you get when you seek to understand, and maybe even love your enemy. It’s the kind of peace that starts really small, and slowly it grows into marches on Washington. It tears down walls. People find God there. Some people just call it love.

The trip was incredible — I didn’t even touch on the amazing bonds I formed with the group of kids I traveled with, but I’m so happy that I get to share such incredible memories with them, from spontaneously getting up to watch the sun rise over Nazareth to smoking hookah and eating Dominoes late at night, sitting around sharing stories.

But mostly I’m glad I went on this trip because now I know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that I’m not pro-Israel, I’m not pro-Palestine, I’m pro-Peace. I’ve learned that peace at its core is a search for comprehension, understanding, and love. It’s going to take a really long time, but I know that I’ve chosen the right corner of history to stand in. Please ask me questions, debate with me, seek to understand, and hopefully you’ll join my corner. That’s how we’ll eventually start making progress in the Middle East.

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