I keep a weathered, cracked-spine composition notebook on my bookshelf. While it’s only filled a third of the way, it contains some of the most important information I’ve ever learned.
My favorite page is a collection of name tags. Each name is written in shaky black pen, a product of summer-fueled excitement. Now over four years old, the stickers are losing their tackiness and beginning to peel away from each other.
The notebook was given to me on my first day of Hands of Peace, an interfaith dialogue program for American, Israeli, and Palestinian teenagers. After a long day, I collected everyone’s nametags to paste into my notebook as a keepsake.
I participated in Chicago during the summers of 2018 and 2019, going into my senior year of high school and first year of college. I spent last July interning at Hands of Peace, watching a new round of participants undergo the process.
A Hands of Peace summer involves skills training, team building, and camp-like activities not limited to lakeside picnics and a ropes course. However, the heart of the program lies in daily near three-hour dialogue sessions led by two facilitators, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Circled up, we discuss why we’re here. In three weeks, participants meet the “other.”
During my first year, our group came to a gridlock on issues like the dual histories of 1948 and Israel’s compulsory military service. We leapt from blank stares to anger. Our facilitators rerouted course and asked each member of the circle – Palestinian, Israeli, and American – to share a story that profoundly shaped them. Stories about home raids, medical inaccessibility, and restrictions on movement materialized into a larger picture of injustice. As we moved from person to person, a tissue box followed. Defenses softened, and we finished the day a tear-filled pile in the women’s bathroom. In those moments, it felt like we could do something powerful.
In the 22-year timeline of my life, I plot Hands of Peace as a pivotal turning point. The experience I gained since 2018 expanded my understanding of Israel-Palestine, introduced me to a community of incredible people, and planted an unwavering commitment to justice. Growing up in the Chicago area’s Reform Jewish community, Palestine was not in my vocabulary. Hands of Peace was the catalyst that changed that. The program became my diving board into Jewish anti-occupation activism.
In May 2021, as Israeli authorities forced Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and violence escalated in rockets and airstrikes, I checked in on my friends from Hands of Peace. In South Hebron, one friend felt her home shudder as bombs dropped on Gaza. In Haifa, another friend feared leaving his home as chaos erupted on nearby streets.
After a message from one of the Israeli alum wishing for everyone’s safety, some past participants trickled out of the chat, conversation never resumed, and we struggled to feel the same hope we left with just a few years earlier. We met as future peacemakers, but at that moment, the odds were against us. Only in the dialogue room – 6,000 miles from Israel-Palestine – could we be together.
Cushioned by the daze of new friends and summer activities, it was easier to hold the realities of Israel-Palestine at arm’s length. There was no separation wall keeping us apart in suburban Chicago. While Israelis and Palestinians might live 10 minutes from each other, they had to travel across an ocean to meet. For the first time, we were just an easy car ride away. And soon, we would return across countries, borders, and checkpoints.
Hands of Peace does not sell itself as a final step in the peacemaking process but rather as the beginning of a journey. But for many reasons, our journeys don’t look the same. We return to tremendously different environments, which often discourage communication and friendship. In Israel-Palestine, there are significant physical, institutional, and societal obstacles to seeing each other. In the US, it’s easier to return to life as usual.
Upon entering college four years ago, I channeled my frustration into action that I found in a supportive community of anti-occupation Jews on campus. As an American, I had the privilege to act on my discomfort. As a Jew, I felt compelled to change the status quo of silence.
When I participated in Hands of Peace, I received baffled looks from members of my Jewish community. I broke the unwritten rule: do not engage with Palestine. What a harmful thing to believe, I thought.
Today, American Jews have reached a reckoning point that has surfaced more transparent than ever. The tides of racism and fascism in Israel are rising. The Israeli government has embarked on an anti-democratic overhaul that would curtail civil rights while escalating its violations of Palestinian human rights. Do we continue to ignore, or do we come to terms with the long-sidelined occupation?
With the future on the line, a continued lull in action – let alone conversation – threatens Israelis, Palestinians, and, yes, American Jews too. Many in my community did not share the urgency I felt to act after the summer program. This has been, and will likely continue to be, the most difficult part of my post-Hands of Peace journey.
My Hands of Peace friends were brave to travel across the world. They were courageous to share about the occupation’s toll on themselves, their families, and their futures. While they might have felt changed by the program, the reality they returned to remained stronger than their efforts. Today, the forces working against them are even stronger.
Our collective background as American Jews allows for a powerful platform. We are stakeholders in US policy toward Israel and Palestinians. We are also a crucial part of an intertwined community of world Jewry. But, most crucially, we can join the conversation from here: in our homes, synagogues, or schools.
The violence of the occupation, the neglect of Palestinian human rights, and the enduring reservation to speak out against troubling realities demand attention. It was luck that Hands of Peace was hosted in my backyard. It was my identity that left me no other choice but to stick around.