Seeking Nuance in Jerusalem

I am scared of rigid opinions, hard lines, and absolute truths. I am especially fearful of the definitive beliefs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I hear from Jewish American young adults. Even after a year of studying in Israel and after seven months working at a peace organization in Jerusalem, I still do not have decisive answers. Every day that I live here is a day in which I confront confusion, pain, and paradox as well as beauty, hope, and holiness. Yet it is precisely this tumult of emotions that I hope Jewish American young adults who visit Israel will seek out.

Last October, as I moved to Jerusalem from New York City, violence erupted. There were stabbings and vehicular attacks almost daily. Quickly, the streets became desolate and people pulsated with fear.

A year out of college, I had come to help start a new program, From Dialogue to Action, which brings together Israelis and Palestinians (ages 18-27) from the three Abrahamic faiths. The group works to change a harshly divided Jerusalem by walking in the streets as a group and creating podcasts—trying to prove to locals and the global community that interfaith living is possible in Jerusalem.

While beginning this project, I was overwhelmed with fear. I dreaded going to our office everyday in East Jerusalem; I was deeply disturbed that I could be so scared of Palestinians. Despite my liberal inclinations I felt forced to racially profile.

During a particularly severe week of stabbing attacks on buses, I was on a bus when two Palestinian teenagers boarded and sat in the back. The passengers around me moved uneasily to the front. I remained sitting in the rear, a row ahead of the two Palestinians. I could not look back and face them; I did not want to offend them with stares; I felt guilty that they were being branded as potential terrorists simply for being Palestinian. Nevertheless, I imagined myself being stabbed—imagined where the knife would rip open my back. Mute and motionless and internally roiling in distress, I sat. On this occasion, among many others, the realistic danger of attack and my ideological belief in amicable coexistence churned within me.

Jerusalem was not new to me. I had spent a year living here and studying at Hebrew University as a junior in college. But now I was immersing myself for the first time in conflict-related work and facing the conflict everyday. The mystical, spiritual Jerusalem that I fell in love with was suddenly stripped away from me. I could no longer walk easily through the Damascus Gate and surround myself with Arabic and Muslim culture. Winding my way through the Old City to pray at the Western Wall was daunting. I did not know how to deal with the pain in my heart, the pain of those around me, and the anger that permeated the city.

It was as though I was bound to a giant swinging pendulum—as I listened to Palestinians and Israelis I was repeatedly swung to the political left and right. I met a Palestinian Christian woman who had grown up next to an ancient Catholic church in the Old City. She was able to move about freely in Jerusalem and Israel because of her “Jerusalem ID”—a card that granted her limited rights in Israel. But when she married a man from Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian territories, and left Jerusalem, her ID was revoked. Now she needed a special permit to visit her elderly parents in the Old City.

Hearing stories like hers made me want to rail against Israel. How could a country I love tear a family apart and so blatantly discriminate? As a Jew I could so easily apply for an Israeli passport, buy a house in Jerusalem, and come and go as I wished. Why couldn’t a woman who grew up in Jerusalem do the same?

More recently, though, I went to Ramallah to visit a Muslim Palestinian woman I work with. She spoke about the rampant corruption and the lack of women’s rights under the Palestinian Authority. Honor killings of women are still generally admissible. Many Palestinians would rather live under the occupation than under the governance of the PA. Listening to my colleague, I felt a raging “right wing” voice rise inside me. If you can’t trust your own government, I thought during this conversation and others like it, why would Israel trust it? If women can still be subjected to honor killings, why would the international community even think to support the creation of a Palestinian state when western values vehemently oppose such practices?

While I was struggling with the voices of left and right inside myself, I also realized how uncomfortable I was meeting new people and being defined by my work. Because I did not– and still do not–have a definitive stance on what Israel’s policies should be concerning Palestinians, land, settlements and “the right of return,” I did not want to engage at all in conversations surrounding the conflict. Because of my clashing thoughts, I dreaded being misunderstood—or worse, being judged as an uninformed, naïve, anti-religious foreigner who has no business engaging with this conflict.

And yet, as a Jewish American I do have a role in this conflict. As a Jew I feel a spiritual and biblical tie to this land. I encounter holiness at the Western Wall, at Shabbat tables in Jerusalem, in my explorations of the Galilei and the Negev. And as an American my country holds significant influence over Israeli politics, particularly because the U.S. gives nearly 3.1 billion dollars annually to the country.

Whether Jewish American young adults come to Israel on Birthright, for study abroad, or to make Aliyah and become citizens, I dream that they will chart paths of uncertainty by getting to know the many “others” that make up Israel—by listening to the voices of Jewish settlers, Haredim, Secular-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, and Palestinians, and by moving beyond the limiting terms used by the political left and right. It is our own Jewish tradition that teaches us this principle. Before we come to conclusions we must see and feel the other side as though it is our own.

As Jews we follow the legal rulings of Hillel and his students and not the rulings of Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai. “Why was the Jewish law established to follow the opinion of Hillel?” the redactors of the Talmud ask. It is because Hillel was wise enough to fully engage with opposing opinions. “The students of Hillel…taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.” (Eruvin 136:1).

It is easy to take a side and have answers. It is easy to attack. At times I feel distressed and disoriented because of the complexity and confusion I invite into my relationship with Israel. But this has also nourished a fuller understanding of this country and conflict. I pray that we, especially my fellow Jewish American young adults, pursue uncertainty and nuance in this Holy Land.

About the Author
Natalie is passionate about exploration—from working with interfaith communities in Jerusalem, to examining gender and Jewish tradition, to teaching yoga and meditation. She holds a BA in Jewish Studies from Northwestern University. Most recently she worked as the Assistant Project Director for Dialogue to Action, an interfaith program for Israeli and Palestinian young adults. She has also taught English and meditation at an all-girls school East Jerusalem.
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