Following our initial five days in Jerusalem (with frequent visits to the West Bank), we headed south towards the Negev last Sunday. By this point, students visiting the region for the first time had begun to develop a better understanding of the conflict and Israeli society as a whole. Still, all they had seen was Jerusalem: the intense, heart of the conflict. From my perspective, it seemed that much of the group believed that all Israelis (and Palestinians, for that matter) are completely preoccupied with politics, fear, defense, and violence twenty-four seven. Of course, this simply isn’t true. As we left Jerusalem, and students got to see more “typical” day-to-day life, I was excited to see how the group’s perceptions and opinions evolved.
Our first stop on our way south was at the Gazan border, where we visited Kibbutz Netiv HaAsara. We spoke with an older American-Israeli woman who explained life on the border— both sharing stories of when the borders were open and Gaza was relatively safe, and more recent accounts of life during wartime. I always find it fascinating to listen to people who willingly and wholeheartedly choose to remain in the most unstable areas of the region, even if that means raising their children amidst rocket warnings, shelter drills, and imminent fear. Anyways, the woman took us on a tour of the kibbutz, which included a lookout point (with harrowingly close views of Gaza), a stop at their “Path to Peace” wall, and a casual run-in with the Israeli Minister of Agriculture #classic. (sidetone: If you have been following the news recently you might have heard that Gaza has been flying kites with Molotov cocktails over the border and setting Israeli kibbutzim fields ablaze. Presumably, the Minister of Agriculture was there to survey the kibbutz’s agricultural damage.)
As we left the kibbutz we were notified that we got a last minute meeting with the director of civil security for the Israeli side of the Gaza border, a gentleman named Eyal. He took us to another lookout point much closer to the border and explained how the IDF and volunteer kibbutz militia work to keep Israeli border communities safe. From the lookout, Gaza was in full view: the dense infrastructure packed together, smoke and pollution rising from the streets, and the occasional movement of a human far in the distance. Later, one student said that looking at Gaza was like looking into a zoo. Indeed, it did resemble a neglected zoo— a tragic, condensed, confined pocket of living, breathing, (mostly) innocent human life.
While visiting the border brought about a certain mood, depressing emotions quickly subsided after a visit to the infamous Hummus Shel Tehina (a personal lunch favorite), complete with pickles, olives, falafel, pita, lemonade, french fries, and, of course, more hummus than you could ever imagine. Afterward, we continued south, passing by Beer Sheva (my heart!), winding deep into the desert before arriving at Mamshit Camel Farm. Nestled in the foothills of the desert, the property has a collection of small cabins and a flock (herd? squad?) of domesticated camels. Somehow our group lucked out, and we were the only ones on the property for the evening. We climbed the rocky desert foothills to watch the sunset, ate a delicious vegan Bedouin meal, and made s’mores over the fire (with gross strawberry-flavored kosher marshmallows). As we messed around and talked, I found myself thankful for the open, kind, and genuine dynamics of our group…we totally lucked out. The stars shone brightly over the darkened desert, the wind blew sparks from the fire across the ground, and I felt at peace in my favorite landscape of my favorite land.
After a much needed twelve hours of rest and “conflict-less” conversation in the Negev, we switched gears and headed back north along the Dead Sea towards Jericho. The Dead Sea never ceases to amaze me. The way the scratchy white salt contrast the baby blue water and rough tobacco desert…the intricate hydrological systems that keep the whole ecosystem at play…the towering Jordanian mountains in the distance…the impermanence of it all (the Dead Sea itself is drying up and dying)…ugh, I am endlessly fascinated by it…
Following our drive, we visited Jericho, the tourism capital of the West Bank, where we took a gondola ride up to the monastery on the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus was hypothetically tempted by the devil). I wish I could explain more, but unfortunately, I’m still embarrassingly uneducated on the whole Jesus narrative. C’est la vie. What I can tell you is that Jericho remains the HOTTEST place I’ve visited in the Middle East. While the temperature wasn’t as bad as last summer with Mimi, it was none the less oppressive (no pun intended) and thoroughly unenjoyable. “Cooling” off in the lukewarm Dead Sea helped slightly, but my internal temperature was not truly soothed until I consumed a four dollar cup of watermelon (#worthit) and fell asleep on our air-conditioned bus ride north.
The next few days were spent in the northern part of Israel, the Golan Heights. Two things I was reminded of about this area: 1) technically it’s occupied territory (Syrian territory occupied by Israel) and 2) it’s GORGEOUS. Think Napa or Sonoma on absolute crack— rolling green hills, a fertile Jordan River valley, vineyards…you get the picture. Smushed between the Syrian and Lebanese borders, it can be tense at times, but simultaneously beautiful and peaceful. A perfect metaphor for Israeli life!
Some of our time up north was focused on the conflict. For example, we visited a Syrian refugee who was receiving treatment at Ziv Medical Center in Tzfat, met with Israeli students to discuss their perspectives on the conflict, toured a war-torn building formerly used by Syrian forces as a hospital and command post, chatted with Irish and Finnish UN soldiers manning the border, and watched and listened from an outlook as bombs went off in Syria. Other moments were more playful and innocent. We swam in the pool, took a jeep tour, swung off a rope swing into the Jordan river, played frisbee and soccer on the grass, and visited our Israeli program coordinator’s (Daniela’s) family. While the trip’s main focus was to understand the conflict, I found this downtime equally important, as it provided us time and space to process our experiences. It also gave students a glimpse of “typical” Israeli life, which involves some discussion of politics and conflict, yes, but also an immense amount of fun. Witnessing the happiness of daily life was crucial to round out the group’s perceptions of Israel as a whole.
After a quick stop in Haifa to meet with a Muslim community and see the Bahai gardens (fascinating religion), we were off to Tel Aviv. In a serendipitous turn of events, I met up with Felice, one of my best friends from my first semester in Israel. Felice is American and made aliyah after graduating college in 2017, moving to Israel, becoming a citizen, and enlisting in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Now, she is a weapons instructor on a base in the Negev and uses simulator technology to teach combat soldiers how to operate weapons. Total badass!
Our final evening was spent at a delicious Ethiopian restaurant. As we ate and drank together, I felt a familiar pit in my stomach form. It was a feeling of raw emotion…an unexplainable connection to a simultaneously flawed and beautiful land. It was also a feeling of anticipated sadness, for I knew all too well what coming home from Israel feels like. As the meal concluded and we climbed on the bus to the airport, I realized how truly impactful this trip was. It provided me with an opportunity to reexamine and harshly critique a place I call home. It reminded me of the spiritual, emotional state Israel can put me in. It brought incredible new people into my life. And it solidified my belief that no matter how problematic I find Israel to be, it is also a place that I feel I belong.
As if life could get any better, I arrived home to a visit from my two best friends from my year abroad, Mimi (from North Carolina) and Maya (from LA). Their presence has made readjusting to California relatively painless and full of laughter, nostalgia, and joy. For the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time, I count my lucky stars for all Israel has given me— the people, the growth, the memories— and my heart is full.
Until next time, להתראות, and with love…….Cass