Israel

Trip Start Jun 22, 2012
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Trip End Aug 08, 2012


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Flag of Israel  , Northern District,
Thursday, August 2, 2012

After the brief posting from Northern Italy, Naftali and I went separate ways. He returned to the States and I headed to Riga, Latvia for a 20 minute layover before transferring to Tel Aviv.

This past week in Israel, and moreover the past month of traveling around Europe, have felt much longer than that time frame. I suppose this is due to the packed days I have generally been having. But when it comes to the past couple weeks in Israel, I feel I have had a different, deeper, experience than my time in Europe, or for that matter, any of the previous times I have been in Israel.

I spent the first five days in the center of the country covering lots of ground, visiting friends and family. This included a visit to a new place I had never been (and do not plan on returning to, but I'll get to that later), the small West Bank settlement Elon Moreh, to visit a cousin of mine.

After spending the day on one of the most controversial pieces of land on earth, I headed back to Israel proper where I spent the night with family friends. I took a walk that night with our friend Yossi where I reflected on my experience in the West Bank and where he introduced me to a new political fiction book he had written about contemporary Israel called Rise (http://www.ysgotlieb.net/rise.asp). I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in or concerned with the direction Israel is headed. I have spent the last few days unable to put down Rise, and it has been a very timely read that has helped me process a lot of mixed feelings I had after visiting Elon Moreh.

After whirling around the center of the country I took a train up North and have since been staying on Kibbutz Tuval where I lived for six months in 2006. The relaxed environment here, coupled with reading Rise have provided a great atmosphere for reflecting on my stay in Israel and to a larger extent the state the country is currently in. I've also been fortunate to have had many discussions about the current state of this country with all the friends I have visited so I have definitely heard a diverse range of views the past couple weeks.

With that preface, I'll now attempt to describe my ever-evolving views of this country that is the subject of so many opinions. I should also say that before writing this, I spent a great amount of time pecking away furiously at my iPhone keyboard, writing down initial reactions and thoughts to my experience at Elon Moreh and at sporadic points throughout the trip, so the following can be seen as an amalgamation of my past couple week's stream of conscious regarding Israel.

There's a certain feel many people, including myself, get upon stepping off the plane in Tel Aviv. It's hard to really articulate other than saying there is a great a sense of belonging. Having gone to Jewish day schools since kindergarten, I have listened to many friends over the years describe their own versions of this sense. And there is a reason for this. Israel is the Jewish homeland--a place where all Jews are welcome.

But this land is the home of many other people as well. The fact that the Jewish homeland is the homeland of non-Jews as well presents a true conundrum. For example, how am I supposed to juggle the immense pride and connection to the Jewish people I feel when hearing Hatikvah, while at the same time knowing Israeli Arab citizens cannot truly feel a sense of pride for their country having to sing, "As long as the JEWISH spirit is yearning deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then 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."

This conundrum became more apparent upon my visit to Elon Moreh. It took me a while to be able to boil down a coherent reaction to my experience at this settlement. In short, I am very happy I went and I think it was an incredibly valuable experience. That said, I don't plan on returning until it requires a State of Palestine stamp on my passport to get there. I had, for lack of a better term, an uncomfortable feeling throughout my six hours over the Green Line. I had never willingly been over the Green Line before, and at points I hearkened back to the feeling I had last year when my high school class was taken unknowingly to a small West Bank settlement by our tour company.

Below is a portion of what I wrote following my trip to Elon Moreh:

"It is the rare experience I have had that has been as difficult for me to describe and articulate as my day trip yesterday to the small West Bank settlement Elon Moreh, which is just North of Schem in the heart of one of the most disputed pieces of land on earth.

It was not as a second thought that I decided to visit my cousin who lives in this settlement. The first time going to a settlement had been an option for me was last year on my high school class's trip to Israel. The tour company that organized our trip had scheduled programming in the (albeit large and likely to remain a part of the State of Israel) West Bank settlement Ma'aleh Adumim. The tour group had scheduled a program to provide the class an opportunity to meet with and learn about Ethiopian Jews. They failed however to provide an explanation of what the political implications were of choosing to enter the settlement or not enter the settlement. The majority of the class participated in the program without ever knowing they were outside of the State of Israel. However, I along with two other friends chose to not attend the program on the grounds that doing so normalized and legitimized the presence of these settlers.

Fast forwarding to today, you might question why I would choose to go to Elon Moreh (one of the first settlements that will go once a Palestinian state is made) but not Ma'aleh Adumim. The reason was because I chose to go with the intention of engaging in a discussion with my cousin as to the legitimacy of his presence in there. Naturally, some people I spoke with before going said that the fact I was choosing to go to the settlement itself would make him feel as if his presence was legitimate. This very well might have been the case.

Seeing as Elon Moreh is in the heart of the West Bank, it took about two hours to get there by bus from the main bus station in Jerusalem. It was a beautiful ride, winding through undulating, dry terrain. Likewise the views from the settlement, which sits atop a hill, were stunning to say the least. Looking out at the surrounding area and being told the biblical history that took place there was a remarkable experience. I'm glad I had this experience. However, there was something underlying my entire time there--the bus ride, the people, the terrain, the views, the history--that tainted the experience and made me ultimately conclude, that I would not set foot in the settlement again until it is a part of the State of Palestine. It's hard to really describe the ever-present uncomfortable feeling I felt throughout my time there. The closest analogy I can think of is if you have ever snuck into somewhere you aren't supposed to be, but curiosity drives you to keep exploring the place. There were times on the drive to the settlement I questioned myself asking, "Elijah, what are you doing here?"

I had never had a meaningful conversation with a West Bank settler. After having spent last year working on the National Connect project (NationalConnect.org), which has a central goal of getting people of differing views to interact with one another in a respectful manner, I thought it was incredibly appropriate for me to try and respectfully communicate with my West Bank settler cousin.

I spent roughly five hours at the settlement and in that time my cousin gave me a tour of the area and we had lunch with his wife. As mentioned earlier, it was pretty mind-blowing thinking of the history that had taken place so near to where we were standing, but again, there was something out there, some feeling I can't fully describe, that prevented me from fully appreciating the area.

As for the discussion itself, it was done in a respectful manner. My cousin and his wife were welcoming, friendly and easy to talk to, and despite the respectful nature of our conversation, little progress was made by either side as to convincing the other was right. While I never expected to change his opinions in the slightest, I did make it a goal to try and get a full picture of his philosophies regarding the area.

It was a very weird situation. Looking down at the surrounding Arab villages, I asked if Jews ever went into them to which he responded, rarely. In most other places in the world it would be considered strange not going to places outside a 2 km radius of your house.

I also struggled with how normal the settlement seemed. The roads, houses and gardens looked like any other community in Israel. The settlement conveyed a sense of permanence.

When discussing instances of terrorism attacks on members of the settlement, my cousin said the best thing he felt he could do was stay there and keep living his life. He was very skeptical of his Arab neighbors. He had no desire to interact with them and said the only interaction between Jews and Arabs in the area were military or terrorism-related."

It was a couple days after visiting Elon Moreh that I began reading Rise. Without spoiling any serious elements of the plot, the book follows the journey of Lilah Kedem, an Israeli expat who has lived in the U.S. for the past thirty years as a photographer but decides to return to Israel and finds herself amidst a different country from what she remembered having left. The book is an inspirational story of how change comes about in Israel to create a more equal and just society and returns Israel to value the fundamental principles on which the country was founded.

When entertaining hypotheses of how an ideal future for Israel can be achieved, I think it is best to start by working backwards. What is it we ultimately want to achieve? Everyone wants to be happy, live in a place where they have opportunities to advance themselves and give their children a good life. However, these ideals can interpreted quite differently. For my cousin in Elon Moreh this would be a world without any Arab presence in the West Bank and an influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the area. For many Palestinians this ideal world would be one with no Jewish presence. And that is where we find ourselves today: In a rigid stalemate.

Now the question becomes, how do we break the stalemate? I believe there are two solutions that need to be implemented before peace can be achieved. The first is a political solution. It is hard for me to believe settlements like Elon Moreh are NOT obstacles to peace. I believe a multilateral, staged dismantling of these settlements and removal of the IDF from the West Bank is a necessary step in creating peace, among other political actions that can be taken.

However peace will not come as a result of removing all West Bank settlements tomorrow. Something in addition to politics is needed to repair this damaged region. Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians must adopt a new mindset of understanding and respect. Rise largely argues that this grassroots, people-to-people approach is the primary force that is necessary to achieving peace. The diverse people of this region must realize they are similar with equally valid claims to this land. The blood that has been spilled in this conflict disenchants and prevents many on both sides from seeking peace. The word "peace" itself carries a stigma. Many roll their eyes at the word, remembering past, failed attempts. And maybe the current generation of leaders is unable to make peace.

They say the Israelites wandered for 40 years through the desert--through what would become the settlement of Elon Moreh 3,000 years later--because God wanted a new generation of Israelites to enter the land of Canaan. Maybe a figurative Exodus is needed to to wake up a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis to the reality that peace is the only option.

This new generation of Palestinians must acknowledge Israel's right to exist. The new generation of Israelis must cast away skepticism and cease actions that call into question Israel's commitment to helping the Palestinians create a state. One of the main characters in Rise says towards the end of the book, "It's not a questin of progressive or conservative, Left or Right. It boils down to people living and letting others live. Hating the other side, whether it's Jews against Arabs or Arabs against Jews, doesn't solve our problems. Society has to recognize that. Hatred is a drug that both sides in the conflict have gotten hooked on."

Another element to Rise was the idea that the citizens of the earth as a whole must recognize that a change in lifestyle must be made if we hope to preserve the planet as we have known it for future generations. In a century where answering emails over iPhones takes priority over vacation, where productivity trumps relaxation, humans must begin to dedicate at least some time to returning to the basics: working the land, walking, building with our hands. I believe a partial return to these basics would ultimately further people-to-people relationships and help in creating a more peaceful world.
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