“In the wake of the Boston Marathon Massacre and the recent massacre in Paris, your proposed trip to the apartheid state of Israel is extremely ill advised.”
That one line from an email essentially captured what I had heard in the days leading up to an early December study tour that I was invited to participate in by the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, known as “The JCRC”. That one line highlighted recent terrorism, expressed safety concerns, and underscored the political complexity of the Middle East. How could I not take this opportunity to see and experience it all first hand? And so, I went.
Our days on the trip were busy. From the moment we awoke until late each evening, we took advantage of every opportunity to travel and learn about the region. We attended morning lectures and discussions on Jewish and Israeli history, the Arab world, Middle Eastern politics, and the Israeli military. We then boarded our bus to go to meetings, important sites and museums, accompanied the entire time by an incredibly knowledgeable guide. We met with a strong-willed Jewish woman from Brooklyn, NY, who moved to Gush Etzion in the West bank to raise her family, living in a tumultuous part of Israel and near where Ezra Schwartz of Sharon was recently killed. We talked about the “wall” with Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, a member of the Palestinian Fatah party, beneath the picture of Yasser Arafat that hung in her office. We then visited the same structure, referred to as “the fence”, with an Israeli Defense Forces Colonel who oversaw its construction. We met with incredibly bright and talented young Israeli start-up entrepreneurs, and a member of the Knesset who has dedicated her life to learning why some people turn to terrorism. We visited a technology college, a hospital, and the Old City in Jerusalem. We heard of “single state” and “two-state” solutions from professors and a former ambassador to the U.S. We traveled to the border of Israel and Lebanon, and to the edge of Gaza, learning about the tangled webs of religion, politics and people.
As was heard in refrain throughout the trip, it was all complex, and very complicated. But, there were also great, simple signs of commitment and hope for the future.
At the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, we saw the commitment of Jewish and Arab parents to educating their children together, and the hope for a peaceful future as the children studied and played as one. At the Al Qasemi College of Engineering and Science in Baka, we felt the passion of Dalia Falid, head of the College, for educating Arabs in Israel, particularly Arab women. Hope there was so simply expressed as a group of smiling, laughing young women posed for a picture with Senator Michael Barrett, with one of them saying, “I hope this will change your view of Arab women.” We had dinner with a 26 year old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who talked of his struggles to get an education. We met with members of the LGBT community who express hope that while difficult, each day brings them closer to equality.
Those who wrote emails to me in advance of the trip, or expressed concern for my safety, have asked me, “So, what did you learn?”
Well, I learned that I, we, have a lot to learn. I learned that as a people and a nation we lack the understanding necessary to truly affect change in the world. In an age of quick hit social media news, where headlines trump substance, we have to resist the urge, and the arrogance, to look at all things as simple. We have to educate each other, especially our young, by encouraging all to step outside zones of comfort, to travel the world, to engage, and to challenge ourselves to understand.
More importantly, I learned that my belief in the goodness of people holds firm. I believe more than ever, that goodness knows no geographic, political, national or religious boundaries, even in the Middle East.
I also believe, having seen and felt the tension, having met the people involved and affected, and having touched the land that has given rise to thousands of years of conflict and hope, that people everywhere essentially want the same things in life – the freedom to believe in their god, and opportunities for good health, education, housing and jobs. And, people want peace.
Yes, it’s complicated. It is complex. It’s not easy. But I believe it is possible. Peace is possible.