This summer, on a student leadership trip to Israel, I travelled across the Green Line into the West Bank. I visited Mitzpor Ha-elef — the highest lookout point in the Judean Mountains, atop a mountain in Gush Etzion.
From atop the highest point in the West Bank, I came to many realizations:
I realized how little time it took me to get to know the other students on the trip. I realized how happy I was to be with people who are just as passionate and nerdy about Israel as I am; People who after every speaker would clamber onto the bus and reconnect to our mobile WiFi to read all the latest stories coming out of the country we were watching go by through the windows.
I realized how powerful the wind could be. It did not feel like a stereotypical Israeli desert summer up on the mountain, with my hair whipping into my eyes and my feet nearly lifting off the ground from the force of the wind.
I realized how small Israel is. It’s not as if I didn’t know the diminutive size of this special country; I live in New Jersey, and it’s about the same size. But, from that vantage point, I could see for miles in every direction, nearly to each end of the country, reinforcing in my mind the fact that this miniscule nation is being fought over by large, hostile neighbors on all sides.
I realized that I was not in a tourist location; I was in someone else’s home. Israeli families live in this region with their yellow license plates, and Palestinians with different green license plates work there. I could see where children go to a tiny school with an even tinier fenced in playground; and in this playground is a swing-set shaped liked a hexagon where six swings all meet in the middle. I laughed to myself that such a swing-set would never fly with overprotective, liability-conscious American parents.
I realized how much history of the Jewish people lies within the West Bank. I looked out toward Derech Ha’avot (the Path of the Fathers), and then I descended from that lookout point to start to walk along the path that Avraham Aveinu (Abraham our Father) walked with his son, Isaac, some 3,000 years ago. I thought of how many of my other ancestors must have walked those same steps as they’ve lived in the area for these last 3,000 years.
I realized that while I could see communities literally touching each other, some are deemed legal and others are not. I realized that my Israeli guide came from a community currently deemed “illegal”. I sat down in an empty shul in his community — a shul that had both Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim inside so that any Jew could feel at home. And yet, they were covered with a thin coating of dust, signaling that they were not used consistently. I thought about how difficult and demanding life must be for the residents of this town, with security concerns sometimes interfering with consistent synagogue worship.
I sat down on a pew and looked at the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark), which had been adorned with the line “Shiviti Ad’oshem l’negdi tamid” (I have placed G-d before me constantly). I let those words sink in as I realized how fitting the quote was for this community.
I heard my guide admit that if we tore down all of the Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria, Israel would receive better press from the international community. I wondered how he could talk so calmly about leaving a spot continuously inhabited by Jewish people for so many years. That was his own home he was talking about tearing down. He, his family, and the handful of other families residing in that neighborhood are living with electricity and water borrowed from a neighboring community, and they are willingly living this way. As much as the “settlements” are in the news, and it seems that the Israeli government is building and funding these developments, the actuality that the residents are often on their own, doing what they can to survive, was a stark reality check. They are choosing to live in an area that is frequently in the media for its acts of hate and pain, and they are typically cast as zealots and villains in this age-old saga.
They continue to live in this disputed area months after my trip, even following the dreadful and shameful acts of violence at the Pride Parade, and the vicious arson attack in Duma. And yet this area was, fittingly, the site of joint prayer between rabbis and sheiks and members of the Israeli Knesset the week after those incidents.
They are living in an area that has experienced death and destruction. They are living in an area that has also witnessed beautiful acts of unity. They are living in a place that they call home. They know implicitly what became even more undeniable to me when I stood atop that highest point in the West Bank.
They know that this little slice of land in Israel has been inhabited, nurtured and sustained by Jews for thousands of years, and through victory in battle. This land is Jewish land and always will be. After years of arguing and fighting, and slicing and dicing, and offers to swap land for an illusory promise of peace, it is time to accept this fact and call it home.