I took my Jewish students on a joint trip with Palestinian students to Yad Vashem and we learned more about our future together than our past.
Recently, Jamal, a new friend of mine, invited me to take my Jewish students along with his Palestinian students as they visited Yad Vashem for the first time. After we toured the museum, we all sat around together on the grass outside of the museum and shared our thoughts — and pizza — with each other.
Many assumptions my students and I had going in were reversed.
While I never thought Palestinians looked up to Israeli soldiers, I couldn’t imagine the vitriol that colored their view of them. After viewing images of the Holocaust and learning about the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews, one Palestinian teen couldn’t understand how just a short time ago the Jews suffered so much and were now afflicting this same suffering on others. Before being offended, remember, this wasn’t a talking point; this was an honest shared feeling by a Palestinian teen. It was his view of how he was being treated by Israel and its soldiers. Thankfully, instead of acting indignant, my students asked why he felt that way, and he explained how scary Israelis were to him. The Israelis he encountered had guns, were well trained, and were constantly raiding his village. It made no difference whether they were justified or not, Israelis are scary. While he was talking, we realized we looked at Palestinians with the same suspicion. Terrorist or not-yet-terrorist? The “Other” was a real and scary fantasy. Yet the fear is more reflective of misconception than reality.
Palestinians aspire for dignity more than liberty. Palestinians feel a deep need for dignity, much more so than the Western ideal of liberty. The students feel a loss of dignity when they pass through Israeli security for everything in their lives. Even a peace trip to Yad Vashem required a permit from Israeli authorities. I was amazed to see how much personal dignity meant to the Palestinians, and how much we’ve taken it from them. Whether our security steps are justified or not, when hearing Palestinians express their hurt, it opened our eyes to their feelings.
I was told that if I was going to post pictures of the get-together to social media, I’d have to cover the Palestinian participants’ faces so they aren’t put in danger at home. That spoke volumes to me. As Jews, we are proud to extend an olive branch to Palestinians. I can publish this essay and expect my community to thank and congratulate me on leading my students on a path of peace. The Palestinians were being put in mortal danger just by attending. What did that say about their community’s desire for peace and the chances of us achieving it? While the day was uplifting, this was a disheartening realization.
My biggest takeaway from the trip was concluding that Israelis and Palestinians can get along on a grassroots level. While leaders sign agreements, people create peace. I have lost faith in the political and lifelong negotiations with maps, borders, water plans and refugee solutions. That is the old and failed 30-plus year path. It’s time to bring in the new. I am an optimist and I believe that if Israelis and Palestinians got to know each other as people and not “the other,” peace could happen organically. Yes, we’d still need borders, security and water sharing plans, but those are the logistical necessities, not the building blocks of peace. Most importantly, my generation is too old and set in or ways to achieve peace. We need to put our children in a place where they are so familiar with Israelis and Palestinians, that there is no scary “Other.”
Peace can happen, but only if we don’t wait for others to make it happen.