Coming to Grips with Beautiful Israel and Charming Palestine

(popping by after a full year’s silence to share about a recent culturtwining adventure that was particularly poignant to me)

My aunt was a fervent supporter of Israel. I, on the other hand, have spent my entire career surrounded by people with a deep loyalty to the Palestinian people, which seems to equate opposition to Israel. I couldn’t quite grasp how my aunt and I could disagree so deeply on something so fundamental. She felt the plight of the Jewish people as if it were she who had been personally hurt, and I wanted to defend my Arab friends who I knew to be kind and peace-loving, and many of whom had themselves suffered deeply at the hands of the Israelis. There was no basis for agreement, so generally we just avoided the topic.

But my aunt was a woman of God, who cared deeply about truth and justice, who prayed and read her Bible and tried to live a holy life. I dismissed her views, but I could not dismiss her.

She passed away last month, just ten days before my first visit to the historic land of Palestine, the country we call Israel. I was going to work with a non-profit in the West Bank that provides psycho-social services to disadvantaged Palestinian youth through sports and arts activities. But since this was going to be my first time in the “holy land”, I figured I’d be amiss if I didn’t at least take a minute to tread the ground that Jesus tread, to see the city over which my Lord cried. So I made plans to spend a couple of days in Jerusalem before crossing into the West Bank.

Messages - requests, pleas, prayers - at the foot of the Western (Wailing) Wall

Messages – requests, pleas, prayers – at the foot of the Western (Wailing) Wall

Flying into Tel Aviv, I found myself wondering how I could honour my aunt’s legacy on this trip, and it came to me: I should try to see things from “the other” side. I’d spent years and years learning to see things from a pro-Palestinian perspective. I had two days during which I could try to see things from the point of view of Israel’s Jewish population. I could try to see the Israel that my aunt saw.

I’m so glad I did. I feel that I understand so much better now. That doesn’t mean I have any answers; in fact, the situation feels more hopeless to me than it ever did before. But over the years, I’d begun to dehumanise Israelis in my mind, assuming them to be some kind of sadistic beasts rather than my fellow descendants of Adam. That was easier than grappling with the fact that this is a complex, multi-faceted issue in which justice for all may be impossible, and forgiveness the only way forward.

Here are some personal highlights:

  • I learned that we are, none of us, without guilt. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, I read about how German Jews, who had felt that Germany was their home and who had taken great pride in their German identity, were almost overnight made to feel like outcasts. Many of them sought refuge elsewhere, but refuge was hard to find. The story of one ship particularly touched me: with 250 refugees as its passengers, it sailed from one Latin American port to the next, and not a single country would allow it to dock. This feeling of rejection is part of the Jewish collective memory today, and as an American-Brazilian I have to accept that I too have a small portion of the rejection to answer for.
  • I saw how Jews from all around the world crave a homeland, and got the impression that many – perhaps most – of Israel’s citizens want to simply be left alone to get on with life in their little country. They don’t want to live somewhere that might reject them like many Europeans rejected them in the last century. They just want peace.
    I observed how Israel truly has been built as a Jewish homeland. And I can see why that’s a good thing. But I can also see how few of the world’s religious or ethnic minorities get a nation of their own, in which to thrive their history and heritage and culture. I’ve wracked my brain to think of other countries that act as homelands in the way Israel does for Judaism, and figured that Armenia plays a similar role for Armenians. But I can’t think of any others. Can you think of other “homeland” nations for minorities?
  • I was impressed by how family-oriented the West Jerusalemites (i.e. those who lived in the “Israeli” – not Arab – side of Jerusalem) were. I was there for their shabbat, which looked like Christmas day in London: not a store open, no public transportation, few cars on the road. What there were, though, were many families out walking together, fathers pushing prams, grandfathers toting toddlers from here to there.
  • I was equally impressed by how hospitable Palestinian Arabs were. In other conflict-affected regions where I’ve lived, I’ve often felt surrounded by edginess and reserve. Not Palestine. Everyone I encountered was helpful. My host even jumped out of bed when I started coughing in the middle of the night, to see if I wanted some warm water! My work colleagues, big buff athletic trainers in their twenties, were on the verge of tears as they shared their concern for the well-being of their students.
  • I registered horror at the depth of social division. As I scoured TripAdvisor forums, looking for advice about visiting Bethlehem, I encountered many comments by well-meaning Christian tourists described all of Bethlehem’s (Arab Palestinian) residents as better-not-talked-to-at-all. And as I sat around the lunch table with my Palestinian colleagues, I heard them rage bitterly against a foreigner who so much as set foot in Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel.
  • I concluded that there is no way to sugarcoat the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank (and, I imagine, Gaza, though I did not visit there) suffer injustice. I got a small taste of it as the authorities taunted my attempts to pass through a checkpoint from the West Bank back into Israel. I saw it in the so-called apartheid wall that was built right in the middle of neighbourhoods, destroying property in places, and in others splitting families and livelihoods in half.
A message of Hope pasted to the so-called Apartheid wall in the town of Bethlehem

A message of Hope pasted to the so-called Apartheid wall in the town of Bethlehem

We don’t see what we don’t want to see. Avoidance is easier than all-out hatred. And hatred is easier than direct confrontation. I enjoyed Israel, with its unique cuisine, great spaces for walking, and its clear family values. I also enjoyed Palestine, with its own wholesome cuisine, friendliness, and sense of life lived to the full. But few Palestinians are allowed from the West Bank into Israel, and few Israelis would ever think to pass the wall into the West Bank. They don’t see the injustice and so don’t have to think of Palestinians as humans. Meanwhile, Palestinians who have not seen any Jewish communities other than the settlements which are brazenly established in historic Arab communities, don’t see any humanity in Israel.

So here is what I saw: Israelis don’t forgive the many people of the world who have hurt them over the years: they’ve chosen instead to build walls. Palestinians cannot think of forgiving the Israelis because all they see are walls. But as I left the Holy Land, I found myself reminded of Nelson Mandela, who played such a key role in beginning a long path to reconciliation in South Africa, and who said: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”

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  • Vernon Horn

    Sad to say, but supporting Israel really seems to have become one of the American Right’s ideological litmus tests, and it seems like it is growing in importance all the time. I don’t really have a good reason as to why, however. I can only guess that that cultural force might have had some influence on your aunt.

    To address your question about “other countries that act as homelands in the way Israel does for Judaism” I can only think of Liberia as a country mostly established for freed American slaves — but that isn’t at all a perfect analog to Israel.

  • Caroline

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Thank you for the way honored your Aunt by seeing Israel’s side. Thank you for being a peace maker by acknowledging and telling others both sides need to see each other humanly and pointing us all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Your humility is a good example. I am sorry you lost your Aunt.

  • Very nicely done. I did not know about your aunt’s passing. My condolences.

  • Leslie

    It is a complex place. I find myself torn depending on what American I am speaking to. No simple answers.