What we need to understand about Israel

“Were you scared in Israel?” my friend Paul asks me. “You know, because of the all the terrorists?” 

I open my mouth to answer, but pause for a moment to gather my thoughts. It’s Fourth of July in Southern California, and the party’s in full swing. The kids by the pool are finishing their chili cheese dogs, already going back for seconds — definitely not Kosher, but that’s not surprising, because I’m not in Israel anymore. ‘All the terrorists?’ I think to myself. Kind of ignorant, Paul, but I can’t blame him. Nine months ago, I would have asked the same question. 

Now, my questions are different, after having spent most of the past year volunteering for Yahel Israel’s social change fellowship, forced out of my naivete and face-first into the realities of Israeli society. Like many foreigners, I left home with two suitcases and a big bag of presuppositions — about Israel, about Palestine, about the West Bank, and Gaza, and the heat. I was right about the heat (dry, scorching). I was wrong about pretty much everything else:

I’d hoped for black and white answers, and what I got were more questions. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what’s needed for a realistic Israel-Palestine conversation. As Carly Pildis wrote in her recent commentary, the role of the outsider is to listen, to condense what we hear, but not always to act. “It is entirely possible to be an advocate for Israel and for Palestinians without engaging in colonialist or saviorist behavior,” she says. “First, listen to the voices on the ground and come to their aid when asked, even if the ask doesn’t fit some overall grand narrative you have in your head.”

My generation is full of highly educated and intensely opinionated social advocates, and that’s as much of a good thing as it is problematic. Our first inclination is to approach an issue with a social change toolbox and a vengeance, but when it comes to Israel-Palestine, we have to step back and take in the full picture. We can’t superimpose solutions on a region we don’t adequately understand, hoping to address problems we don’t have, in a place we don’t live. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t listen, and learn, and discuss.

Last night — my first night back to the USA — an American friend of mine messaged me to ask if I could condense my experiences into a single word. I told her I’d have an easier time trying to cut diamonds with hummus, so instead, she asked what I though she should know. This, I could do:

I told her it’s a dry heat in the summer, rainy in the winter, and the coffee is average, but the people who serve it — Israelis and Arabs — are a unique blend of savory-sweet. They don’t often agree (in Israel, arguments are a national sport), but each community holds a soft spot for honesty, and each culture values family over things. It’s true, there’s an age-old unrest between Arabs and Jews, with atrocities perpetrated by both sides, but there’s also a desire for peace. The news doesn’t always like to show it. I’m hopeful, though, because it’s Israel, after all. It’s the Holy Land — not a mobilized war-state, but a country full of real people, all kinds of people, with all sorts of beliefs, and all ways in which they practice them.

Back in SoCal, the sun’s set. In the distance, the Fourth of July fireworks have started their booming tirade, but Paul still has questions — about Israeli culture and politics and Ramat Eliyahu. I’m jet lagged, half-asleep, but I oblige, because I take this responsibility quite seriously. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand Israel, and I doubt I ever will. It won’t keep me from listening and learning, though, nor should it keep anyone else from doing the same.

About the Author
Ethan H. Smith is a graduate student, a writer, and an alumni of the Yahel Israel social change fellowship. He studies Peace and Conflict in Germany and works as an activist for communities across the globe.
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