I’m writing this from 30,000 feet above Chicago, my home town, as I finish the final leg of a two week mission to Israel with 26 college student activists from StandWithUs and Hasbara Fellowships. It was an amazing journey, but a cold dose of the reality that Israelis live in every day.
We arrived in Israel just after Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal were kidnapped. The tension was palpable on the streets of Jerusalem as we ventured though the Old City. We saw crying mothers at the Kotel, ugly three fingered graffiti in the Muslim quarter of the Old City celebrating the kidnapping, and people from all sides on edge as the IDF troops combed the hills of Judea desperately searching for the boys before the start of Ramadan.
Concurrently, the Jerusalem Light festival went on as planned. We saw Israelis and Palestinians going about their normal lives, sitting in cafes and haggling in the shuks, and beautiful people combed the beaches of Tel Aviv.
During the past two weeks everywhere I turned I saw this schizophrenic reality. We visited Sderot, and the following morning it was barraged with rockets destroying a factory. As we toured the Knesset, my hero, teenager Mohammad Zoabi was moved into witness protection as his Knesset Member cousin Haneen incited threats to his life. This past Sunday we spent the day in the ancient hills of Hebron and Gush Etzion, steps away from where the boys’ bodies were found the next evening. We saw their suburban neighborhood, and met with Rabbi Seth Mandel, who tragically, can truly relate to the family’s pain because his son Koby was killed on the outskirts of Tekoa with his friend Yosef Ishran. The killers were never found. It was this senseless act of hatred in 2001 that was the catalysts for the creation of StandWithUs.
For the American and Canadian college students on the trip, the most Israeli experience we had was our final night. After giving passionate goodbyes to one another overlooking the Kotel from the roof of the Aish Ha Torah building, gazing at the amazing visages of our 3500 year old restored indigenous inheritance, we boarded the bus to Ben Gurion airport from the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem content that we had learned from an amazing experience.
As soon as we took our seats, tragedy struck. Cell phones started sounding, students started weeping. We got off the bus and embraced each other and soaked up the tears into our shirts. We said Kadish, sang Am Israel Chai, listened as wails echoed from crying Jerusalemites across the walls of the Old City, and got back on the bus for the most silent ride of my life.
This is Israel. Accomplishment, joy, sadness, grief; raw emotion in its purest form. This is what the students will bring back with them to their North American and Canadian campuses. They have had a life changing experience that will cut through the noxious anti-Zionist rhetoric they have to deal with as they worry about their studies. They will laugh in the face of Apartheid Week and nail BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) to the wall for the racist hypocrisy it represents.
All I can say, is that it has been a profound two and a half weeks.