As those of you who follow me on Facebook might have been able to tell from my photo posts, the last week has been quite the adventure. I was able to participate on an Academic Partner for Peace study trip to Israel, focused on conflict-resolution and peacemaking. I traveled with a group of faculty from across the U.S. and Canada, joined by two close friends from the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel Action Network. I had joined in on a few days of a similar interfaith trip in 2016, so I knew what I was in for — a remarkable opportunity to hear multiple narratives, and meet a wide variety of people, and experience Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in ways that the vast majority of visitors never do.
We heard from government officials from the Foreign Affairs ministry, we met with leftist Israeli NGOs, we spoke with Israeli-Arabs and traveled to the oldest Peace Center in Israel, to learn about efforts at bi-lingual education and building a shared society within Israeli schools. We met with a Palestinian doctor in Ramallah, and head of a medical relief agency, who espoused the strongest viewpoint of Fatah — the Palestinian National Authority — and then we met with a Palestinian business man building a multi-billion-dollar city in the desert, which is either SimCity Palestine or a real effort at a middle-class Palestinian existence. We visited with Settlers and Palestinians in the Etzion bloc who were actually engaged in efforts at shared society. We met faculty at Hebrew University in the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. We heard from Arab-Israeli political activists and from women who are “waging peace” because “the men aren’t doing to well of a job at it,” putting pressure on politicians, and learning how to effectively lobby . We had a security briefing by a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Force about external threats, while on a mountain-top overlook in the Golan Heights, while looking into Syria and Lebanon, and heard gunfire in the distance. We traveled to the immediate outskirts of the Gaza Strip, visiting a town (Sderot) that regularly is subject to rocket-attacks from Hamas. We visited a Moshav adjacent to Gaza (a kibbutz-like community) in which every building is a bunker. We learned about the ways they try to live a normal life, while being in constant threat from rockets. We met with a lawyer and activist who is trying to achieve equality for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, while overlooking the security barrier which literally divides part of East Jerusalem in two.
What we did not do, was hear one voice, one narrative. It was the complete opposite of many mainline protestant-organized trips. We learned multiple narratives, we were forced to grapple with a wide variety of perspectives, and try to make sense of them, identifying the incongruity and dissonance that such an exploration can provide. This was not my first trip, and not my first time hearing many of these narratives, but this week expanded my understanding, and provided new context. It reinforced the need to listen to the narratives.
I can’t pick any one thing that was most compelling, as so many were, but I will forever remember how being in a space and learning about it is so dramatically different than hearing a talk in a hotel meeting space. Standing on top of Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, standing a few hundred meters from the Gaza Strip, or learning about the geopolitics of Jerusalem, while over-looking the city, looking at French Hill (a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem – or should I say a settlement), two Palestinian neighborhoods, and then looking across to the largest Israeli settlement, Maale Adumin, splitting the West Bank, practically in half, and beyond it to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan, all provided a visual element that dramatically enhanced the speaker’s message. Throughout it all, I tried to listen for the unique narratives, and to find the similarities and differences.
I could write about many experiences, and I will in the next several weeks do that as I go through my notes. Today, I am enjoying the benefits of being 100 yards from the Mediterranean sea, taking two days of rest and relaxation, before returning to Jerusalem for more meetings and explorations. The beach awaits.