Shalom dearest people!
After 24 hours of travel, we arrived in Israel late last Tuesday night. Exhausted and half-asleep, I sat on the bus to Jerusalem and felt the familiar curve of the road climbing into the hills. The blurred pattern of lit skylines and empty, dark patches of agricultural land sped past me. I heard the faint sound of our driver’s radio and the murmuring of Hebrew. It surprised me how quickly I dropped back into life here. Immediately, everything felt like home.
The first five days of the trip were packed with more activity than any other consecutive five days I’ve spent in Israel before. There is a stark contrast between my year of relatively normal life here and this trip of back-to-back site visits, activities, and discussions. In an attempt to digest the initial five days of the trip (and not to bore you with every detail), I’ve decided to return to a past blog post style. I present to you, a few somewhat related takeaways from returning to a place I love:
There is ALWAYS more to learn.
This might be an obvious one, but it has been perhaps the most surprising to me. After a year here, I had learned so much about certain holy sites, cultures, situations, historical events, and people. But the initial five days were a humbling reminder of reality: I know nothing. From touring the Old City for the hundredth time to learning new details of old stories, and hearing different perspectives on things I thought I knew, I’ve not only absorbed an absurd amount of new information, but I’ve also been pushed to challenge things thought I knew to be true.
I’ve also experienced so much personal joy and growth as I’ve watched others understand and process this land at #warpspeed. My conversations with those who are in Israel for the first time are especially interesting. I also feel lucky to have a few Israel-veterans on this trip, including one UC Davis Israeli student, and another student who spent a gap year here. They have been valuable sounding boards for my more in-depth questions and reflections. Overall, I’ve been reminded of how influential my year abroad was, and, of course, how much more there is to learn.
Good people (still) make the experience.
How FREAKING fortunate was I to meet the people I spent my year abroad here with? I count my lucky stars every day when I think about these humans. We are bound by such a unique and intense experience, one that only each other can truly understand. This trip has been no different.
The students on this trip were pulled from a variety of campus groups, clubs, majors, and affiliations, and are deeply invested in learning and quality conversation. I have been shocked by the openness with which people have approached experiencing the conflict and by the comfortability we feel speaking our minds to each other. While our days have been incredibly long (often starting before 8am and not finishing until 9pm) our conversations are almost constantly deep, intricate, and on-topic. It is refreshing to be around a group of people who value this type of communication, and it is even more exciting that this group is invested in learning and discussing a place that I find so fascinating.
Alone time is my freakin’ jam.
While this isn’t a ground-breaking revelation, I was reminded of the value of time alone last Friday afternoon at the Jerusalem shuk. After agreeing with our group on a meeting time, I peeled off silently, melting into the bustling, pumping energy of the pre-Shabbat shuk. I felt more in my element than I had since I arrived. Completely alone, anonymous, and free to fly under the radar (away from the group) I weaved between people, shoving my way past those that were too slow in typical Israeli fashion.
I bee-lined for the yummiest lox in the market, savoring a single slice as I continued through the packed corridors, swiping samples of almonds, dates, and stone fruit from nearby stands. Garbage juice (yes) splashed on my feet and I narrowly avoided squashing a feral cat’s tail. I stopped quickly at my favorite vegan cafe for granola balls and a sprouted lentil and tahini salad (#classicme), nabbed a gut-wrenchingly strong green juice from the Entrog Medicine Man, taste-tasted an obscene amount of tahini, ate a single, random Persian cucumber, and topped it all off with a *huge* slice of pecan halva.
While this food extravaganza was incredible in itself, there was also something special about simply being on my own for an hour. I got mistaken for Israeli (and German and Russian, of course), was addressed to in Hebrew, and was not ripped off the way I had been in the early days of my year abroad (just ask me about the $90 granola story). For an hour, I pretended I was back in Israel for good, surrounded by the intense diversity and energy of Jerusalem. Nostalgia was at an all-time high.
Switching gears away from more personal observations, I want to address a few reflections I’ve had in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself (the subject of our trip).
One of the most fascinating aspects of the trip thus far has been watching fellow students try to understand the different perspectives and narratives involved in the conflict. This includes both the general Palestinian and Israeli narratives, as well as the differing individual narratives of Palestinian and Israeli sub-groups. I have been reminded of the complexity of both societies, and the deep internal conflicts that both experience.
From the Israeli side, people often overlook the differing opinions of secular Jews, religious Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, Arab-Israelis, new immigrants, anti-Zionists, etc. From the Palestinian position, the nuanced perspectives of Arab-Israeli Muslims, Arab-Israeli Christians, Palestinian Muslims, and Palestinian Christians are impossibly complex. Each group, on either side, have such different priorities (percentage of land vs. holy sites vs. social services), making it impossible and inaccurate to lump them together the way the media and global audience often does.
Media is problematic when it comes to the conflict.
For all the connectivity, joy, and positivity the media has brought to our lives, there is no denying it has disastrous effects on our perceptions, opinions, and responses when it comes to situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a perhaps unsurprising statement.
I thought about this especially hard last Wednesday, after an incident we witnessed while crossing from the West Bank back into Israel. While sitting in our bus, waiting in the line for the border crossing, we watched as two Palestinian boys argued with each other a few meters away. Many Palestinian youth sell small goods (water, bags, toys) to locals and tourists waiting in their cars. These Palestinians often have areas that they control the sales of and consider “theirs.” This specific argument occurred as one boy got frustrated that another boy was selling in his area.
As the fight became physical, one boy broke away and ran towards the border guards, presumably in hopes of safety. We watched him get closer and closer to the guard as the guard yelled for him to back up. Eventually, the boy got so close to the guard that he had crossed the line of acceptable distance, legally requiring (under Israeli law), the guard to pull his weapon on the boy. We watched as the guard lifted his weapon and pointed it at the boy. The boy cowered backward, and the guard lowered his weapon, but only after a moment of intensity.
This incident made me think about the way that the media can take images or videos out of context. If I were to see a video online of an Israeli guard pulling an assault rifle on an otherwise innocent Palestinian boy, I would be filled with rage. However, when put into the context of a specific situation, my opinions of both of the individuals’ actions become more complex and nuanced. While undoubtedly disturbing, witnessing this type of interaction was a reminder to be vigilant when developing opinions based on media.
I am here. And you are here, too.
Personally and factually, this trip has allowed me to further digest the conflict’s intricacies and formulate my own opinions. We have been fortunate to speak with a wide variety of people, including the head of civil security for the Israeli communities surrounding Gaza, a former Israeli press secretary, the current minister of agriculture, Palestinian refugee camp directors, Orthodox Jews, and IDF soldiers. These conversations, in addition to visits to Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, the Gaza border, the Negev, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem, have richened our experience further. As a result, I have been able to form more staunch beliefs on certain elements (e.g. I completely oppose settlements) but have also further developed certain nuances (e.g. humanitarian aid to Gaza).
The reality of this land, of course, is that it is shared by two people. As one of our Palestinian tour guides said simply on Tuesday, “I am here. And you are here, too” (“you” being Israelis). The way he said it, matter-of-factly and peacefully, but with a twinge of sadness, deeply touched me.
The average Palestinian, as well as the average Israeli, does want peace. They want a safe place to raise their children, economic security, physical safety, and the freedom to carry out their dreams. There is an undeniable longing for peace on this land. And yet, these groups are nowhere near close. This second, in-depth look at the conflict has made me both more optimistic and more cynical. More specific thoughts to come in the next blog post…stay tuned for a recap of the time in the Negev, the North, and Tel Aviv in the coming days…
Love you all, Cass