As Israelis are afflicted by terror attacks and once more caught up in a cycle of disastrous violence with their Palestinian neighbors, I have thought a lot about the time I spent in Israel last summer. I was staffing the Israel trip for my American Jewish summer camp, which I attended for almost a decade. This is an open letter to my 16-year-old campers, whom I was not allowed to speak honestly with at the time — and who I must, for their sake and mine, be honest with now.
We had just spent almost a week in the Negev and were driving to a kibbutz near Jerusalem. You thought we were staying at a normal kibbutz, similar to the other ones we had visited.
But Kibbutz Almog was not like the others; it is deep within the occupied West Bank. It is a settlement five miles south of Jericho, a major Palestinian city. No one in the international community, including the US, recognizes it as legally part of Israel. If there were ever to be a two-state solution, the land we were staying on would almost certainly be part of Palestine. To get there, we drove through a checkpoint into the West Bank, where Palestinians are routinely stopped and delayed for hours from getting to where they live or work. But we were on the bus, and waved right through, so you did not notice.
I quickly realized where we were and began to cry, stuck between my commitment to a two-state solution and my director’s insistence that I keep quiet. Once we got to the kibbutz, many of you came up to me and asked why I was upset. I told you that I was stressed out and dealing with some personal problems. The truth was that I was crying because I had been forbidden to talk to you all about the realities of this place, the complexities of where we were.
I strongly support the two-state solution as the best way to guarantee a peaceful and just future for Israelis and Palestinians, yet I was expected to lie to you all about the Green Line, and about the Palestinians who live beyond it.
By doing so, I compromised my values. I was supposed to be teaching you to ask questions, think critically and have an open mind. But I couldn’t.
You all will be heading to college soon, and face many of the same struggles that I have. You will enter an entirely new place with many different perspectives, and I deeply regret that in our time together I did nothing to teach you to hear them with an open mind. I did not prepare you for the facts you will learn about Palestinians, about their history and their lives, because I was part of a program that actively excluded them from your experience of Israel. You will learn things you did not know about the place that many of you deeply love and care about, and you will feel like we let you down, misinformed you. And you will be right.
How can we truly support, love, and understand Israel when we are not allowed to honestly and openly speak about it? How are you all supposed to envision peace, cooperation and coexistence with a future Palestinian state when the maps we gave you erased any semblance of a border, and effectively erased the Palestinians themselves?
Campers, my challenge to you is to listen to all sides. Listen to writers and professors, to soldiers and activists, and come up with your own thoughts. Stand up and insist that your opinions be heard and taken seriously. It is okay to be pro-Israel while acknowledging that Israel also makes mistakes and isn’t perfect. Israel is a real, flawed place, sometimes beautiful, sometimes deeply upsetting. Understanding and engaging with that truth doesn’t make you anti-Israel — it makes you a responsible adult, a responsible citizen equipped to advocate for a better Israel and a better world.
To the director of my camp, and to all those who hold authority in Jewish institutions that teach thousands of young people every year, I ask: please don’t put someone else in that impossible position next summer. Do not continue to address problems faced by Israel by simply pretending they don’t exist. Do not continue to erase the Green Line and the millions of Palestinians who live beyond it, whether on the maps you use or the programs you run. Do not send our campers into the West Bank without attempting to explain the historical and political realities of that place.
Going forward, in my work as an activist for the two-state solution and against the occupation, I’m determined to boldly face reality and do my best to positively shape it. That is the least we all can do — and we owe it to ourselves, our communities, our values, and the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to do so.