With their tortured but inseparable histories and their respective futures inextricably intertwined, the Israeli and Palestinian people – to their dismay – experience on a daily basis the fact that virtually every issue, from water access to education to employment to health care, is made more burdensome due to their struggle: the struggle of one people against another.
On Sept. 1, 2008, I embarked on a journey through the lands of Israel- Palestine, the home of sites held sacred by all three Abrahamitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as well as by the Druze and the Bahá'í.
I was privileged to travel with the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a group known for standing up for human rights, for searching for truth, and for refusing to blink away harsh realities. Together, as OTI participants, we discussed and debated the best way to reach a genuine and lasting peace.
Together, each of us went through our own journey.
As a transfer student to UC Irvine in the fall of 2007, I was keen on searching out new and interesting campus organizations. I tried many, only a few stuck. My first week, I met OTI student Katherine Keith, a senior international studies major. Katherine spoke of the Olive Tree Initiative – an ambitious group that had decided to witness firsthand the faces and voices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her enthusiasm met my equal quantum of skepticism. Nonetheless, I attended the first OTI meeting. I knew that a few of the OTI participants would be there.
My motivation to join did not turn on any possible – at that time remote – trip to the territories. Rather, what motivated me was the desire to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from my fellow students. I wanted to meet these students, so representative were they of various student organizations and so diverse were they religiously and ethnically. They had all agreed to discuss the problems before us and were willing to do so in a mutually respectful manner. I joined to listen and learn.
Of course each one of us brought to the table our own a priori assumptions and biases concerning the modern history of the Middle East conflict in general, and the various opposed parties that had contributed to the formation of the state of Israel and the Palestinian opposition in particular. The status of this conflict was in the forefront of our minds. We each had our sense – yet to be formulated – of who deserved blame or deserved praise. This made our coalition something of an unusual one. By agreeing to disagree and working toward a fair and balanced itinerary while constructing the logistics of our trip, our friendships developed.
In Jerusalem, we were met by Guido Baltes, an astute resident German who – from start to finish – guided us. Guido answered, as best he could, the questions we put to him throughout our sojourn through the territories. From Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from Ramallah to Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jaffa, we witnessed circumstances beyond our imagination. How is it to be a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation? In Bethlehem, the employment rate is of cially numbered at 60 percent. How is it to be an Israeli citizen hurrying for cover during Red Alert? That some of the residents testified to their circumstances inarticulately only attests to how difficult such circumstances are to articulate. Living in those circumstances is, in its own right, an education – an education of the heart, an education in politics, an education in pain.
We lent our ear to the harsh daily realities. The military checkpoints with their pass/not-pass system was to me reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid regulations in force before the establishment of the African National Congress. The controversial settlement enterprise, another prickly issue, appeared to us as a regular community or village, indistinguishable by the untrained eye from others in Israel proper. Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, believes the surrounding land is land granted to Israelis by God and that the residents of Ariel live on “Greater Israel.” Yet to those committed to a two-state solution and who are devoted to Palestinian independent statehood, these very same settlements are anathema, antithetical to the prospect of peace. A minority of Palestinians, we came to realize, still cling to the dream of a “Greater Palestine.” That is the official view of many in the leadership circles of Hamas, for example.
I could discuss our beautiful lunch at Maxim’s restaurant. This restaurant is a joint Arab-Israeli venture. There we met with Maxim’s owner who discussed the suicide bombing that occurred in October 2003 which killed 21 persons, Arabs and Jews alike.
I could discuss meeting the bereaved fathers of 17-year-olds Tal Kehrmann and Asaf Zur, both victims of suicide bombings that occurred in Haifa, a city otherwise proud of the level and quality of the co-existence that it has attained.
In Jerusalem, we met Yitzhak Frankenthal, a prominent businessman, who told us of losing his son who was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and who was captured and killed by Hamas. In response, Mr. Frankenthal founded the Parents Circle, an organization for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost a loved one in the conflict.
In Bethlehem, we met with Yussef. Yussef’s son had worked as a deacon at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and was murdered by an IDF sniper just before entering his church – a random act of violence. Subsequently, Yussef had his Israeli work permit revoked and lost his job. This revocation was motivated by the fear that Yussef would slip into Israel and take retaliatory action avenging his loss. We met with several others who shared similar stories of pain. We came to know the Parents Circle as a critically important forum for Israelis and Palestinians to come together.
I hadn’t imagined – I hadn’t expected – to hear such a nuanced and diverse set of views in such a small body of land. Still, factionalism is an accurate way to describe the situation. The prickly issues we witnessed, whether by observation or by the testimony of others, included the check-points, the separation barrier, the settlement enterprise, acts of individual terrorism and acts of state terrorism – all symptomatic of the political deadlock that has only the name “false peace” to its credit.
It would be a mistake to view these stories as stories told simply and only as exemplifying personal tragedy. These are public tragedies of the first order. Only in a privatized sense – so characteristic of a certain kind of American individualism – are these stories reducible to “personal tragedies,” stripped of public import. Rather, these tragedies are symptoms of an established disorder.
True, the situation lends itself to a profound sense of dread. Nonetheless, traveling with the Olive Tree group and seeing the openness and perseverance of those directly affected by the conflict – seeing also the strength displayed by those who honored us by engaging in dialogue with us – conveyed a certain hope, a hope that one day the Holy Land won’t be synonymous with war but with true peace.
Originally published in Expressions/Impressions journal, 2008