Yesterday will go down in my book as the most meaningful day as an Israeli tour guide. I was touched to the point of shedding tears, as were my tourists. The story goes back several years , when I lived in Dallas, Texas and was privileged to attend the classes of Rabbi Hanaan Schlesinger. In almost all of Rav Hanan’s classes, the theme of ‘looking at both sides of the coin’ repeated itself. In other words, there is no such thing as ‘one truth’, but rather ‘multiple truths’.
As part of the tour guide course, we were always reminded that our job is to present tourists with different perspectives rather than our own opinion. This ‘golden rule’ is not always easy to follow, especially with the complexities and divisiveness of Israeli society. Yesterday, I was privileged to take a 60-something couple who were in Israel for the first time to Jerusalem for the day. After I had made all of the arrangements and planned our itinerary, it still felt like something was missing. And then, in the middle of the night, I got an idea in my head about which I couldn’t stop thinking.
‘I have two tourists from America. Could I bring them to your center today?’, I wrote to Rav Hannan at the crack of dawn. No response. Then, I checked my email messages from a few years ago, and found his phone number. ‘Eric, how great to hear your voice! I’d love to talk, but I only have 30 seconds’, he said apologetically. After confirming that he was giving a presentation in his center at 11AM and I was welcome to bring my tourists, I picked up Donna and Larry at their hotel and told them that they were in for a real treat.
Headed for the Holy City on a dreary winter morning, I pointed out all of the key sites along the way. But the blessing of rain meant that the vision was not great. As we made the final ascent towards Jerudalem, I got choked up as I explained how we almost lost the city during the War of Independence when the convoys bringing supplies to the besieged city fell like flies. I quoted David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. ‘Without a state, there’s Jerusalem, but without Jerusalem, there’s no state’. Then I played a piece of Naomi Shemer’s famous ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ song explaining the depressed state of the city during the first 19 years, versus today’s rebuilt Jerusalem, over the past 50 years.
Passing Jerusalem’s Malha mall and the post-1967 south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, I called Rav Hannan to get better directions. ‘It’s 300 meters north of the Gush Etzion intersection, where you’ll see a break in the guard rails and a muddy dirt road’ he explained. Since there’s no address, GPS was of limited help.
As we turned south on Highway 60 and passed through the tunnels and IDF checkpoint, I told my tourists to notice the different license plates. ‘For the first time, you’ll see a lot of Palestinian cars with white license plates. This road is mixed, but they cannot go past the checkpoints, and Israelis with yellow license plates cannot enter the Palestinian cities and villages.’ Blocking the view of Bethlehem is a series of high security walls along the highway that were constructed some 15 years ago when Israelis were shot at during the 2nd Intifada. While I also spoke about other aspects of the area, such as climate, vegetation, Biblical history and geography, I felt that the license plate explanation was a good introduction in understanding today’s complicated reality. Even the name for this territory is loaded with controversy. Take your pick: The West Bank, Judea & Samaria, the Occupied Territories, the Liberated Territories, over the Green Line, all of the above or none of the above. This is one of the most meaningful but complicated areas in the entire world.
After missing the break in the rail and dirt road, we made a 15-minute U-turn and entered an emotional island of hope and inspiration in the middle of ‘no man’s land’. There are no signs, flags, decorations, nor anything that can be interpreted as a religious or national symbol in this unusual ‘neutral territory’. But inside the makeshift structures, Israelis and Palestinians step out of their comfort zones to hear the perspective of the other side. We arrived a few minutes late, just after a 30-something Palestinian had started to pour out his heart in expressing his journey over the past decade. Although on several occasions as he spoke, I felt the urge to make a “correction” or to “add context” to his statements, I restrained myself. He was speaking profoundly from his heart, and sharing his emotions. He had witnessed his good friend being shot and killed by Israeli soldiers as part of a raid into his village to capture who we considered to be a terrorist. His friend was not the target of the raid, but had come to defend a fellow Palestinian. After, the speaker explained how he had set out to attack an Israeli soldier and was stopped and arrested at the last minute by Palestinian police. After he was released from a Palestinian prison, his anger remained, and he felt the need to defend his people, to “stand up to the occupation”. Ironically, it was only as part of his Palestinian Authority tour guide course when he was given a special permit to enter Israel and for the first time, learned about the history and traditions of the Jewish people. Up until that point, he saw Israelis as the enemy since his only interaction was with soldiers who killed his friend and prevented him from passing check points Eventually, he decided to abandon all forms of violence, and join the grassroots peace organization. During his 30-minute presentation, I felt deeply touched by his heartfelt description.
For the next half hour, Rav Hanan shared his emotional journey, starting from his aliyah (moved to Israel) from the USA at the age of 18 from a deep ideological connection to Zionism and a love for the Land of Israel. He decided to live specifically in Judea/Samaria instead of along the coastal plain because it’s here where our ancestors from the time of the Bible until our exile by the Romans 2,000 years ago lived their lives. But a few years ago, he came to the realization that his deep ideology of Zionism had completely blinded him to another narrative. Up until that point, the only Palestinians who he had met were at check points where he served as a soldier, and the construction workers in his home. His heart had been hardened to the suffering of another people who live in our midst, and their hearts are hardened to our suffering. Although we drive on the same highways, we speak different languages, practice different religions, listen to different media and have a completely different perception of “reality”. We even live in different time zones. He had scheduled a meeting with a Palestinian from the neighboring village at 1PM. They both showed up at the appointed time, but never met one another! The Palestinian Authority and Israel change their clocks at different times.
Unlike other left-wing Israeli organizations that take up the cause of Palestinian rights from a strongly secular perspective, this organization was founded by a ‘religious right-wing settler’. This most unlikely partnership almost sounds like a ‘Rabbi and Pope’ joke.
Although they do not have a comprehensive political platform, they strongly believe that true peace will be achieved only through dialogue and mutual understanding. Spending an hour in Roots/Shorashim/Judur is something that one has to experience to appreciate, and few will come out with dry faces.
As we prepared to leave, Donna hugged the Palestinian who spoke. “I’ve never met a Palestinian”, she exclaimed emotionally. I thanked him for sharing his profound words and introduced myself to him as an Israeli tour guide. We continued to speak about common roots between Hebrew and Arabic. Stepping into the car, I yelled out a final “shukran” (Arabic for ‘thank you’) For the remainder of the day, we continued to reflect on what we had experienced, and had many more questions than answers. Indeed, we got a meaningful taste of “the other side of the coin”, without compromising our profound love for the Land of Israel.
Eric Grosser is a native of East Liverpool Ohio, and received his B.A from the Ohio State University and M.B.A from Bar-Ilan University. Eric is a certified Israel Tour Guide and founder of Holy Land Escape. He lives with his wife Einav Grosser and six children in Rehovot, Israel, and writes extensively, on current events and every-day life in modern Israel.