I just recently returned to the United States from a 10-day trip to Israel, Israel Uncovered, sponsored by The David Project. Before this trip, I thought I knew Israel as a state that had some problems, some tough Israelis, and some amazing food. What I came back with, was a whole new set of questions and uncertainties, renewed humanity, and nurtured understanding.
What this trip sets out to accomplish is exactly that. In America and around the world, we are shown certain images and graphics of what that individual media outlet wants us to see. These images tend to involve war, guns, violence, and savagery, and promote militarism, polarization, and close-mindedness. What doesn’t make ratings and what the mainstream media does not show, are pictures and stories of humanity at its best, organizations such as Shevet Achim, a Jerusalem-based group that brings children from all over the Middle East to give these children life-saving heart surgeries at Israel’s famous Hadassah Hospital.
What the news also does not show is the condition of Arab-Israelis living in villages such as Barta’a, a town split in half by the Green Line with one side living in Israel, and the other side living in the West Bank and the complexities this brings.
This trip is designed to show the complexities and nuances, the contradictions and conflicts in Israel. This land is flourishing like the fertile North with perspectives and experiences, which are left out of the conversation. Given this fact, the conflicts are not easy to solve. As an IDF official told our group, “There is no easy solution. If there was, we would have done it already.” The Israeli government understands these complexities and is working everyday to negotiate and compromise within reason. There is a saying: “If you put three Israelis together in a room, you will get six opinions.” From the speakers we heard from during the course of the trip, we definitely got a glimpse of what this looks like.
There is no debating fact, only interpretations of those facts. There is no debating opinion, as those are someone’s own. But most importantly, there is no debating experience. One’s narrative is truly their own and it is unique. The experiences of Bassam, for example, a Palestinian who works with Combatants for Peace, are unique to him and are essentially key to solving the conflict. The experiences and opinions of Yoaz Hendel, the head of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, are his own and should never be disregarded or discredited as his too, although different from Bassam’s, are an important aspect of the discussion. One way we can change the culture around hot topics such as this, is to stop disregarding other people’s narratives. Once we disregard someone’s narrative, rapport is destroyed, and the conversation is predestined to fail. There must be rapport built up between parties. This is what many organizations in Israel, including those aforementioned, are demonstrating through their work.
During our time in Jerusalem, we visited the Western Wall, holy to Jews, we saw the Via Delarosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, holy to Christians, and we toured around the Dome of the Rock, holy to Muslims. While keeping the themes of the trip in mind, we learned how all three major religions live together in just the space of a few miles. An understanding and appreciation of the complexities in a place such as Jerusalem is required in order to have a discussion of current events unfolding there.
One aspect of Israeli society that kept coming up was the notion that Israel is both a Jewish and Democratic state. With Rabbi Donniel Hartman from the Shalom Hartman Institute, we discussed how Israel being a Jewish state could be one that is also Democratic. He argued that the two are not inherently exclusive, however because of the current powers at be, not all Israelis citizens are served, therefore forfeiting its Democratic qualities. He continually stressed the importance of recognizing the nuances Israeli demographics provide, and the multiple perspectives Israelis offer. A Jewish, Orthodox rabbi who believes God should become second to culture and customs, Rabbi Hartman provided a unique perspective on domestic Israeli issues, and forced us to challenge what we believed to be true.
This trip has been an absolutely wonderful experience for me because, coming back to Israel for the second time, I was given the immense pleasure of seeing Israel through the eyes of non-Jews who had never been there before. I saw how they developed and grew throughout the trip and struggled with the hard questions and conflicts, challenging and questioning our speakers. It amazes me how people of many different backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities can connect to Israel in their own meaningful way.
What’s next, though? We all must bring what we have experienced on this trip, what we have learned on this trip, back to campus in order to foster a culture of respectful debate and meaningful discourse through relationship-building and active listening. We must, as campus leaders, be able to demilitarize a white-hot conversation and bring humanity into our discussions. Because of the wonderful opportunity we have been given, we have the tools to make real change a reality.