These past few weeks my Facebook feed has been inundated with stories involving the ever escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyday there are yet more deaths, and the media happily reports the brutally of it all in whatever biased way they can. What the media repeatedly fails to present however, are those who are paving the way for peace. Those trying desperately to counteract the increasing violence by breaking down the walls of ignorance, whilst risking their lives in doing so. Now seems a better time than any to write about my visit to Israel and the West Bank this Summer most recently past…
I went to Israel on a Birthright trip. Statistically speaking, I am now one of 500,000 others who have participated in the programme since it began in 1999. I was with 30 or so other young, Jewish adults from the UK (i.e Northwest London) all called David, apart from Anna and Shoshanna, with whom I was sharing a room. We’d expected that everyone would be very Jewish, very conservative and very close-minded so we were pleasantly surprised to discover that most of us were in fact the complete opposite. Instead, we identified with being Jew-ish, liberal and open-minded. In fact, it wasn’t only me who thought that we would be brainwashed with rightwing Zionist politics and wooed by Israeli soldiers by coming this trip. It was nice when we realised that the organisers would not attempt to indoctrinate us as we had anticipated, and that none of us would be forced to fall in love with an Israeli soldier and live happily ever after. The trip was relatively neutral, and we were allowed to ask any questions we wanted, no matter how politically or culturally awkward.
Nature and the outdoors was the main focus, so we were always active and always sleep deprived. Never have I done so much in ten days, our activities would commence at 8am and finish at 10pm, often later.
Our journey began in the North, in the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Water hiking was the first activity (i.e. wading waist-deep along a tributary), a perfectly peaceful and relaxing beginning as we became acquainted with one another. Then we visited the Tel Chai college where we made cheese using only milk, lemon and salt accompanied with some local wine. This was followed by water rafting along the Jordan river, visiting the Lebanese border, and eating to our hearts content at the kibbutz in which we were staying that evening. The next 9 days were no less packed.
We stopped by Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism. We visited a medical institute, Bar-Ilan, who do phenomenal work with improving the social welfare of the locals. One evening we had a lecture by a woman from the Israeli Intelligence. She explained the intricacies of the surrounding Arab countries and who hates who. It’s not as simple as Jews versus Muslims. There’s the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and they all seem to hate each other too. Our exhaustion from the day’s activities didn’t help us in trying to get our heads around it all.
On the hottest days of the trip we were making our way South. The air conditioning on the bus broke down and the itinerary brought us to Masada and the Dead Sea. We climbed Masada at the break of dawn, the air so thick that the Sun looked like the Moon. We shared a special moment as we leant over the edge of the cliff face, simultaneously shrieking into the crevasse and hearing the most spectacular echo. We laughed in childlike awe, as if we had just heard for the first time.
The Dead Sea wasn’t as buoyant as I’d remembered. We were taken to a commercialised part, where they drowned our ears in club music, and replaced the mud with sand so as to reduce the tourist’s discomfort as much as possible. The mud was put into bags for sale, every consumer’s dream.
The nearby oasis Ein Gedi, on the other hand was amazing, we saw all sorts of animals, and had to painfully tear ourselves away from the refreshing pool and plummeting waterfall. The variety of scenery never ends, for we also walked through the Ein Avdat canyon, encapsulated by serene stillness.
In the South we stayed for a night with the Bedouins in the Negev desert. This was the highlight of my trip, the evening I had been waiting for. We rode camels into the sunset and I couldn’t help but imagine a scene from Star Wars. The food was by far the best we’d had, I couldn’t stop myself from eating more.
The Bedouins taught us that strangers may have up to three cups of coffee (no milk, no sugar) and that as a Bedouin you may have up to four wives. Woman can only have one husband, in order to know who the father is. I was surprised to learn that many of the Bedouins volunteer to join the Israeli army, for they have excellent tracking skills. Arabs do not face conscription like the other Israelis do, and in general they typically don’t volunteer.
We were near the Gaza Strip when the dust came, visiting an educational farm by the name of the Salad Trail. Being outside was like being in a sauna, every time we left the coach we couldn’t wait to return again to the air conditioned haven (once it had been fixed). Our tour guide at the farm was British, thrilled to have us because British Birthright groups are few and far between, and we could understand her references. For days we were enshrouded by dust, obscuring all of the views from the typical tourist lookouts for last few days of the trip. At the farm we learnt that Israel had invented drip irrigation, and we got to make pita with za’atar, try every variety of tomato (Israelis also invented cherry tomatoes), search for passion fruits in the maze and throw homing pigeons into the air.
Our stay in Tel Aviv involved relaxing on the beach, where we sang and played guitar in the sand and the particularly pale folk got hideously sunburnt. We were also fortunate enough to go to an awful, hideously overpriced bar. The music had started off well but it rapidly went so far down the drain there was no hope for redemption. Instead, we went to play on the swings in the neighbouring park and had our own party on the bus on the way back to the hotel.
Before arriving at the Independence Hall the following day, we met the Israeli soldiers would be joining us for half of the trip, telling us everything about what it’s like to be Israeli and be in the army. Men have to serve for three years, and women for two. We shared many memories with them, from boogying in the aisles of the bus to the times most sombre at the Holocaust Memorial.
At what was once Dizengoff’s house, there was more information than I could absorb. It made sense to start with Meir Dizengoff who moved to Jaffa in 1905, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. He had the vision of Altneuland in mind, a utopian novel written by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Many others also immigrating to Palestine at that time had a similar vision. Jews had been coming to Palestine some decades prior, and although most didn’t stay, those who did lived peacefully with the Arabs. Despite their often highly educated backgrounds, the Jews set to work in agriculture, often completely clueless, and with their communist ideals the kibbutz movement was born.
The Independence Hall, in which we were sitting, had been where Israel’s Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1948. Tension had been building between the Arabs and the Jews since the Balfour Declaration in 1917; as usual, the Brits were getting involved and screwing everything up. The very next day after the declaration had been signed and Ben-Gurion had announced independence, the War of Independence began with the neighbouring Arab states attacking from all directions. Thousands were killed, with thousands more in the wars to come: the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, not forgetting the First Intifada from 1987-1993 and the Second Intifada from 2000-2005. It seems that not a decade goes by without a war or something or other.
In Jerusalem we discovered all of the sights and sounds and smells of the market, and walked through the Roman aqueducts beneath the City of David in complete darkness. We held each others hands in a chain as we felt our way along the claustrophobic tunnels, singing as we trod carefully through the water.
Our time in Jerusalem was the most religious part of the trip. We visited the Western Wall twice, once during the daytime, and again for shabbat. By day it was hot and quiet, people praying, people weeping, but by night everyone was singing, jumping and dancing. The men and the women are segregated: the men sing more loudly and dance more energetically whilst the women are supposed to sing in a more subdued manner. Some of the women can be seen staring solemnly over the divide towards the men having all of the fun. Luckily for us, some of the women weren’t having any of it, and started to clap and raise their voices in defiance as they sang some of the more modern renditions, and began to dance as well. Suddenly a troop appeared and things became even more raucous. An older woman managed to get into the middle of the circle and stop us temporarily, complaining that this is not what we should be doing, and we should stick to the older traditions, but the soldiers ignored her and continued as they were.
We recovered on lost sleep during the rest of shabbat and tried to prepare ourselves mentally for visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Preparing oneself for such an experience is nigh impossible. We were guided by another Brit, who had recently made Aliyah a few years ago (moved to Israel). She relentlessly laid upon us the sufferings of the European Jews during the Holocaust. She emphasised how Hitler had been voted to power, and implored us to realise that the Nazis were human beings too, that somehow people can be capable of such horrific acts. We often hear of the statistics, 11 million deaths, a number unfathomable in its comprehension. We should remember that each and every single person had their own loves, their own passions, their own story to tell.
We saw pictures of the ghettos, Jews enclosed behind walls, yet I couldn’t help but think of the Palestinians enclosed in a barrier of their own. We listened to the tales of those who had to walk for days knee-deep in snow after the war was over, starving and freezing to death. We were told about those who had endangered their lives to help save the Jews, from Danish individuals to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an entire village. By this point I could no longer hold back the tear that so earnestly wanted to make its passage down my right cheek. I wrote a poem about that tear. When the war was over, the survivors of the Holocaust had little to celebrate. Most of them had lost everyone and everything. They had no home to return to. Where could they go?
At the Holocaust Memorial I was asked to share the story of my brother Rotem. It was in 2004 when his possessions were lost in a fire whilst on holiday in Sinai. He was trying to get new documents when he was denied to use the bathroom where he was, and was told to use the hotel across the road. He never made it out again. Little did I know that I myself had once stayed in that very hotel, at the mere age of 8, until I was told by my sister a couple of months ago. I also can’t help but think of my grandparents, who fled from persecution in Iraq in the 40s, and then think of the refugees today.
The most harrowing experience for me was our visit to the Givat Haviva organisation. We were under the care of a Welsh woman, Lydia Aisenberg, who was surely decades younger than her age given her passion, spirit and energy. She also embraced us for being British, and revelled in being able to swear. We had two precious hours with her. We were inspired immediately. She told it like it is, leaving us thirsty for more, toes twitching wishing that we could do something to help.
She read us the poem of a girl named Bat-Chen, who was celebrating her birthday in Tel Aviv with her friends when a suicide bomber took their lives. One of the girls survived, because she jaywalked. We were brought to tears, weeping for the peace that she so eloquently described in her poetry, at the sincere age of 15. Lydia then took us to see the fence, which looked so plain and simple, decorated with a garnish of barbed wire. She showed us Barta’a, a town divided in two by the Green Line. Countless families have been separated as a result of this. The Palestinians waved at us as we drove past in our big tour coach, how could they wave so cheerfully?
Before I went to Israel I thought that in all I saw I would gain greater understanding and clarity, that everything would now make sense. The complete opposite is true. I spent most of my time feeling confused and conflicted, one of the reasons which drove me to visit Palestine so fervently. Perhaps there I would find my answers. I will try to write about my experience in the West Bank sooner rather than later.
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Sounds fascinating, I can only imagine that seeing more of the humanity of the countries locked in conflict makes it seem even more tragic and wasteful.