On the Footsteps of an Elusive Peace

 In combatting antisemitism, Promoting Tolerance

My journey around Israel’s borders and into the West Bank

 

ISRAEL — Saturday. 6 August 2022. 

My elementary school career underwent a series of Jewish day schools, and as for my childhood, a stew of programs steaming with diverse flavors of Jews fromaround the world. From modern-Orthodox to reform, conservative to secular, Israeli, Mexican, and American to South African, there was a commonality among them: “Israel is a small, but very strong country,” teachers, Rabbis, or counselors would say, “Be proud to be Jewish, embrace your roots, your culture, and love your heritage.”

Of course, there was nuance in the language of this message, but it was clear at its core. Jewish holidays and Israeli festivals were celebrated like weddings, vows of unconditional love to the land that gave our families safety and opportunity, celebrations of our culture with high spirits. And I got the message— I’ve lived it, I practice it. No hatred involved: As with marriages, criticisms are merited but denial, slander, and violence shall never be.

My father, too, has relayed this message to me with profound passion as we embarked on our annual family trips to Israel growing up. “Israel is my paradise, no matter what happens here or how small it is,” he announces at the breakfast table crunching on chunks of ruby-red watermelon snowed upon by crumbles of feta. I roll my eyes, forking up sunny side-up eggs whose sun-bright yoke gushes as I take a bite. He senses my mockery: “You’ll come around, maybe not now, but later. Trust me, I was like you— I felt nothing as a kid. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

The little girl who grew up in a Jewish-Israeli home with family in Israel whom she visits every year, a student who attended Jewish day schools and programs, a girl who celebrates holidays like weddings, a child who was made a woman at Jerusalem’s Kotel— she felt only pride. She relished in her heritage, but never felt anything close to her father’s connected sentiments. 

Touring around the country and studying the Holocaust in-depth at her dawn of womanhood, her Bat Mitzvah, did impart emotion and emphasize the importance of a Jewish State, however, that was surface layer. It took almost a decade for her to understand, a decade for new senses to emerge, a decade for a deeper love to grow. Now, at the age of near-twenty, this little girl is not so little and she proves her dad right. As with studying the Holocaust, it took total immersion into the choppy waters of yet another tragedy to foster such feelings. Not a shocker if you know this girl.

/–/

 My stomping grounds here in Israel over the past three days have vitalized this land that I have blood-ties to— a stark exposure of conflict. These are people I know and events I know of, I have read about, written about, and spoken about, but of which I never thought to find myself a primary source witness and future testament. My cousins in the army; my aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have bomb shelters installed in their homes; friends who saw rockets land just two years ago with their own eyes. And me, when rockets fell just miles away from my apartment here in Israel just yesterday.

Three days ago, my dad, our tour guide, and I drove up to the Israeli border with Lebanon, a town called Metula. We listened to stories from a man named Yaniv who lives in the northernmost home in the country. His father sleeps with grenades and an armed gun by his bedside. I ask Yaniv why he doesn’t move away from this vulnerable town. “I feel safer here than anywhere else. It’s hard to understand, but it’s because I know who my enemies are,” he replies.

 He drives his red jeep barefoot and jumps out to grab us nectarines larger than my fist, of vibrant reds and yellows, sweeter than honey. He shares stories of how his once beloved neighbors—like family—became the enemies he fears day in and day out. It is these enemies that scrutinize his every step atop the slopes of Metula’s hills. It is these enemies he fends against as war after war ravages his hometown that his family has inhabited for generations. 

Yaniv is Metula’s shepherd. Every change and every move is a sixth sense, and he commits to guarding this village with his life. Just a few years ago he smelled something fishy in the village, suspecting the infamous tunnels dug by Hezbollah: “The army thought I was crazy, they thought I had PTSD. They thought I was
paranoid. No one believed me.” We stop by the recently excavated tunnels where Yaniv can prove his doubters wrong, then drive up to a mountain peak on the northern tip for a complex view from above. We watch Lebanese farmers cultivate dry lands pinned by Hezbollah and PLO flags below, and peer ahead to see Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in the near distance. A small country indeed— and that’s just a fragment of the north.

/–/

 After our adventures with Yaniv, we are welcomed into the humble home of Mona, a Druze woman living in a quaint village in the Golan Heights. My mouth waters as I smell cumin, za’atar, and fennel seeds at the entrance. A meal of a dozen dishes— spicy rice, Fattoush salad, pickled eggplant, varieties of fluffy breads coated in spices, hummus, labneh, and more awaits us.

We indulge in a cuisine and culture so rich, where Mona joins in to share the complex flavors of Druze traditions, history, and daily life. It is a religion whose holy place needs no holy land. Why can’t all religions adopt this? An antidote to peace, perhaps. “The home, with family, is the holy place. There is no other,” Mona adds. 

The simplicity of home as a holy place is rooted in Druze origins. Temples once disguised as residential houses to protect against Islamic persecution are now their worshiping grounds. Although the Druze need not fear today, their modern temple—the Khelwa—looks no different than any other home in the village.

Mona shares stories about her daughter and son, like many other Druze youngsters, who unusually left home to study or work elsewhere. She describes her junction between enemy states of Syria and Israel— one in which her children can attain free education with little competition, and in the other, where her family experiences an exponentially higher quality of life. Which to choose? “It’s complicated, we don’t have any citizenship,” she remarks, serving me a heaping of fennel and tomato-marinated green-beans. A place to be faithful freely and build the family unit is vital for the Druze whether in the Golan, the Galilee, Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere. “We just need to do what’s best for us,” Mona says.

Setting the Druze aside as peaceful inhabitants, doing “what’s best for us” is the fundamental problem in this country of 500 kilometers long and 135 kilometers wide. This tiny place houses a demography whose complex origins, cultures, and divergent interests clash like no other. While once living in peace in the Middle East—these Arabs and Jews—Jews were evicted from their homes yet again, anything they ever owned stripped away from them. This was my grandfather’s story back in Egypt. 

Victorious in 1948, Israelis declared independence and welcomed Jews who had been persecuted, in line with the British Balfour declaration. This declaration, for most Jews, seemed shaky but remained afloat with Zionist persistence and their pledge to protect minorities within a Jewish state.

Regardless, ‘Israel’ remained a secret sanctuary of refuge, an undefined place. My grandfather’s travel documents, like Mona and her fellow Druze’s passports, were marked ‘xxx.’ Upon his arrival and for the early part of my father’s childhood, xxx was a swampy land of marshes and bare sand. Doing what’s best meant cultivating the land to establish civilization, to become a miniature and mighty powerhouse despite being cornered-off by enemies on all sides. Settling here was the only route to a better life, let alone survival. Doing what’s best meant planting trees, building neighborhoods, and seeking peaceful life alongside neighbors. 

Unfortunately, politics inherently complicates things, and in its scheme turns populations against each other. So today, doing what’s best means negotiating peace— agreement after agreement. Even after each war that Israel has won, doing what’s best meant giving into 99% of opposition demands, again, again, and again. Doing what’s best means attempting to integrate populations supplemented by international collaboration, financial aid, and work opportunities. Rejected peace plans, embezzled funds, and repeated acts of terrorism leave Israel with no choice but to hunker down. 

Now, doing what’s best means defense. While defense for many outsiders is deemed oppressive, the alternative is perpetual missile attacks and bombings on buses, in restaurants, and schools. “Thank God for the soldiers. Thanks to them I can go to the grocery store. Thanks to them, I can walk outside,” my aunt announces at the Shabbat dinner table. If Israel remained idle, it would become a life anticipating death for its inhabitants— not only for Israelis, but the thousands of Arab-Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians, Christians, and Druze who live there. Sometimes, it still feels that way— a life anticipating death. What defense gives Israel is a cushion from collateral damage: If Israel remained idle, a country full of potential would be yet another failed state just like the rest of its neighbors, overtaken by autocratic, terrorist regimes that abuse their own people. In spite of due criticisms to Israel, a nexus of security, democracy, and innovation prevails.

/–/

As we drive into and past the Jerusalem I’d always known, we stop by a neighborhood once an oasis of prosperity for Israelis and Arabs alike. Our tour guide brings us to a viewpoint to explain the context of this area, notably the green line, a border between Israeli cities and Palestinian ones. His childhood territory. He points out his old home and exact spots where he witnessed things explode like volcanoes and blood streaming out of people like lava. 

This particular neighborhood in Area C is currently undergoing much development. Although Israeli-controlled, it is disputed by Israelis in and of themselves. We observe notable construction taking place as soon as a series of IDF trucks and police cars enter. I am surprised to understand that current Israeli government officials don’t always side with new settlement efforts. “They are going to remove an
illegal settlement,” our guide tells us. “Israel has gone beyond its boundary line here.” For some, going over the green line is an act of religious zeal, and for others, a grave sin.
 

After our lunch break of crispy falafel and eggplant-tahini with puffy pita, we discuss the next chapter of our adventure. This chapter, into Palestinian areas in the West Bank, marks the climax of our geopolitical journey. We are to be welcomed by a shiny red sign with gold lettering that reads “Israelis entering Area A pose danger and threat to their own lives.” My heart races. Anxieties rise. 

I am pleasantly shocked to learn that the sign is merely a deterrent. It has been put in place by the Israeli government to prevent Israeli extremists from entering Palestinian cities and creating trouble leading to ugly, perhaps bloody, scenarios. We don’t need more of those. 

/–/

We meet Nael on the outskirts of Bethlehem and settle in his car. He’s a Palestinian Arab. Unlike our license plate which is yellow with black digits, Nael’s bears a white background with green ones: Israeli vs. Palestinian, the center of the conflict. We drive through the touristic city—Jesus’s birthplace, a Christian Mecca— on the way to the Walled-Off Hotel. I spot a yellow-plated car here and there. Again, that sign was just a deterrent. I feel safer.

Nael explains a bit of his history before we stroll around the area and enter the hotel. “You see, this is a map of historical Palestine. It has always been Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Our people believe there is no Israel. Israel has replaced all of our ancient names with their own, it is towns and cities that do not exist.” Maybe I don’t feel so safe anymore.

Nael parks the car alongside the graffitied wall. I see caricatures of Donald Trump, Larry David, and Morgan Freeman blurting out comical slurs, references to popular culture bridged with apartheid. I see political cartoons peppered with scribbles, ‘fuck Israel,’ ‘free Palestine,’ and ‘someday we’ll all be free’ in between. 

Much of the art is provocative: Israeli soldiers urinating on Palestinian babies. Some of the comments make me laugh: ‘This would be a fantastic place to come to if Jews were cheating on their wives,’ and ‘make hummus, not walls.’ Pain and suffering is real— art and language as a coping mechanism. On the other side, there’s pain too. That is a pain I know from family members and friends. The pain of the Palestinian people is one I will never truly understand, but seeing this side with my own eyes is the only way to get a glimpse. 

The elephant in the room: this hotel I talked about. Well, it’s famous for the view, of course: it’s the wall. This wall splits Area A from Area C with a buffer, Area B, in between. If you stretch it out, it’s longer than the country itself— 700 kilometers. Nael says, “Israelis don’t really need this wall. They just loot our land and keep taking more.”

This wall that divides two peoples is deemed an evil land grab, but it protects people like me from bombings and stabbings among other attacks. The wall is to say enough is enough. Reducing fear by increasing defense is the only solution. We will not live anticipating death. 

This hotel is not only fully-operating in its service enterprise, but is a museum of Palestinian history and artwork. Nael takes us through the museum and tells us how Palestinians feel: “The victims, the Jews in the Holocaust, became the oppressors. 1948, Israeli Independence and our Nakbah (catastrophe in Arabic) is like the Holocaust for us.” Yes, for Palestinians 1948 was a catastrophe, but there is not a single strand that ties these two tragedies together. Was 1948 a genocide, on the basis of targetted ethnic or religious persecution? No. Did Israeli-Jews ever regard the Muslim faith or Arab culture with disdain? No. Today, there are laws limiting some Palestinian-Arab privileges, but security comes first. Arab-Muslims and Druze sit alongside Israelis in the Knesset. And, with all the peace attempts proposed by Israel paired with international efforts by the UN among other countries to help the Palestinians— I have no words. 

Perhaps the outcomes of suffering and refugee crises are one commonality. We conclude our hotel visit and take a five minute drive to Aida refugee camp. “You won’t see what you expect to see,” Nael says, “there are no tents, it looks like a city but they live in very poor conditions.” He tells us that Aida was intended to be a temporary camp. However, over the years, people settled here permanently.

Another graffitied entrance welcomes us under an archway in the shape of a keyhole. On top of it rests a human-sized sculpture of a key. “A return to the homeland,” Nael points to it, “the key back to land stolen from us.” To them, stolen is everything— land, opportunity, water. Homes have water barrels on crumbling roofs. 

“Israel controls our water supply, they have the coast and our city is inside. They leave us with the bare minimum,” he points to the village in the distance. 

We park a bit further up the road. I hop out of the car and to my right is an United Nations Refugee Works Agency sign. The UNRWA school is directly behind. It’s clear where any investment in this place goes: The building is top tier. “For the new generations, we need education,” Nael says. My jaw drops, knowing something about what this education entails. 

Kids flood the slums in 1948 t-shirts. I wonder if it’s an UNRWA program; it would make sense if it was. Nael says that it’s a summer program for kids run by local activists, on the same premise as UNRWA. 

My heart breaks as young kids, aged five through early teens, sardine these slums and surround me. They don’t know me, but already hate me. They might have thrown stones at me if they did. These children are taught math by counting martyrs who have killed people like me. Then they are taught to praise them, chanting tunes of the Jihad, and pledging to shed blood on evil Israelis for their motherland. I ask about the teachers. “Teachers believe and teach children to reclaim the whole Palestine, nothing less, no matter what it takes.” This here, exactly, is the problem. A one-sided narrative, kids know no other story. No freedom of mind— indoctrination— makes for easy manipulation. Acts of terrorism explained.

This beautiful UNRWA building is anything but “hope for the new generation,” as Nael claims. I feel it’s just the opposite: It is an incubator for violence that derails any prospects for peace. It is an echo chamber of extremist rhetoric that gives a false sense of any hope at all. While all these children have is this hope to return ‘home,’ teaching them that their victory will be a product of violence against Israelis is nefarious. My heart bleeds for these kids. To me, hope is shattered. 

/–/

You’re probably expecting me to suggest a solution to this conflict. Education is usually my answer, but I won’t go there this time. Some ideas bobble around in my head. I cannot formulate them into a full-throttled, sensible equation yet. Too complicated: What I learned is that this issue is not only an Israeli-Palestinian one. It is like a chess board where democracy and peace in the Middle East are king, and there are all sorts of pieces with different moves targeting it: Water, borders, culture clashes, socio-economics— the list goes on. 

Over the past three days, I’ve been exposed to the battlegrounds and players of conflict, but there is much more to learn before I can propose a game strategy. Regardless of what I do not know, and seek to learn, what I do know is that integral to keeping the king of democracy alive and striding toward peace is preserving the Jewish state of Israel, of course with tweaks to its policies. We’ve seen that throughout this region’s history, there’s no better alternative.

/–/

I remember myself at the age of the children I observed roaming the slums of Aida. I was immersed in learning about the beauty of my heritage and to relish in my culture. I was taught about foods, festivals, and the diverse fabric of cultures woven together in Israel. I was never told to hate a Palestinian, never to hate an Arab. For goodness sake, I have Arab roots. We, Israeli-Jews, share history and cuisine with Muslim-Egyptians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians. My grandfather was treated by Arab-Israeli nurses when he had cancer. Beyond my Jewish schooling, I was encouraged to make friends with everyone: Iranians, Russians, Turks, Indians, and beyond. As the Hebrew expression goes ‘kulam mishpacha.’ We’re all family.

When we look at societies from antiquity to modernity, those that flourish are those that spread unbounded knowledge, teach their children to take humble pride in their heritage, and protect their people like a bear protects its cubs. Societies that break are the ones who disseminate hatred and oppress their own people by way of warped, radical mantras. My question “why hate and destroy when you can accept, integrate, love, and progress?” remains unanswered. Pride in my identity and values from my warm culture shaped me; tolerance, respect, and compassion became my motto. Hate was never a part of my education. 

I went to Jewish school, but was never acquainted with radical doctrine— religious, ethnic, or political. I was taught that Israel is a small country, a sanctuary of refuge for millions of others including my family. I was taught that Israel is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East shielded by a tenacious defense force who uses revolutionary technology seeking to save lives; a country that is a watering hole of advancement flooding with an ocean of opportunities; a country where different waves of cultures coalesce freely in high spirits. A holy land indeed. Promised, maybe, for peace one day.

/–/

We enjoy Shabbat dinner at my aunt’s house as fireworks disperse over Israel’s south. Not fireworks bursting to celebrate the fourth of July or some other grand event, but fireworks performing to protect nine million people from fifteen terrorists planning some brutal blow. To protect families blessing wine and breaking bread together at the end of the work week. To protect the precious lands upon which I walked, watched, saw, smelled, and felt that bear a breadth of potential. 

My aunt’s husband, once a soldier, shares his experiences as a parachuter during three of Israel’s main wars back in the 70’s and 80’s. He reveres the iron dome, praising how it has transformed the way Israel defends itself day in and day out. How it merges Israel’s mission to save as many lives as possible with her reality. As Theodore Herzel once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

We’re bad Jews. It’s Shabbat, but we turn on the TV to watch the spectacle. Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, is speaking. He says, “Our fight is not with the people of Gaza. Islamic Jihad is an Iranian proxy that wants to destroy the State of Israel and kill innocents. The head of the Islamic Jihad is in Teheran as we speak…We hope that there is no further escalation, but Israel remains committed to doing whatever it takes to protect and defend its people.” 

I continue listening to Mr. Lapid all cozied-up on the couch circled by family, nibbling on toasted pecans. Crunching away, I reflect over my experiences these past few days and can only be grateful for the life I have. Grateful for the life that Israel gave my friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, my mom, my dad. “If I had been born twenty years before I was,” my father tells me, “I don’t know what or where I would be. I am so lucky to have this place.” This gets me thinking. And me? What life would I have if not for Israel’s incessant will to survive and protect the people who raised me? Stepping into all sides— north, south, east, and west— I cannot appreciate this small country more.

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