by Talia Sofizade
I would like to open with a small introduction. I am a Cardiff University student just like any other, though perhaps less like the general demographic. I am Jewish and I have grown up with a strong connection to Israel; so strong in fact that my family and I almost moved there ten years ago.
Attending Cardiff meant being exposed to a somewhat more diverse student body than Immanuel College, an orthodox Jewish school in North West London, and with that came new opinions, not least about the place I nearly came to call home.
From their perspective, I understand why my parents almost took that decision. Making Aliyah – moving to Israel – meant being surrounded by our family; people who have the same fundamental identity and values; gorgeous weather; the beach; a plethora of unique archaeological sites with stories sometimes so steeped in religious mysticism they’re actually hard to believe; the harsh beauty of Masada in the South; the verdancy of the Golan Heights in the north; and some of the best food you’ll ever eat in your life. All this, crammed into a country that takes six hours to drive from one end to the other.
As far as I was concerned we had nearly moved to what was taken for granted amongst so many as the promised land. Granted, everyone, (unless exempted) has to attend the army, but defending such a country’s right to exist seemed a justifiable price to pay for the experience of living there. This is the impression of Israel I grew up with, and having attended only Jewish schools growing up, this view that excluded the Palestinian narrative was constantly affirmed.
It is also understandable that when the narrative one has grown up with works in one’s favour – for there is little doubt that however complicated and precarious, Israel holds the position of power in the conflict – then it is far more comfortable not to question it. However, in a time of rising antisemitism, the controversy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn, regular protests against the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) treatment of Palestinians, the banning of the Magen David at LGBTQ+ rallies, the constant demonising of Israel on many social media platforms, and the questioning of Israel’s right to exist in the first place, it began to feel pressingly relevant.
I find that extremist opinions and on a more fundamental level, hatred, is rarely a reliable platform to base analysis of a situation on, least of all one as complicated as Israel’s. Yet still, everyone seemed to have such strong opinions on this tiny country and those opinions that sided with the Palestinian narrative, however dissevered they appear individually, often result in antisemitism collectively even towards Jews who have no attachment to Israel or are in fact anti-Zionist. One need only look at the current shambles of the labour party to see evidence of this.
Somehow the Israel-Palestine conflict seemed to conflate with anti-Semitism. I felt the need to question how and why this came about.
To my family, Israel, then British Mandate of Palestine was salvation. It was the country which harboured my grandfather and his family after they fled Tashkent, Uzbekistan due to the threat of rising anti-Semitism and the pogroms in the early 1900s. When telling the story, my grandfather speaks of his bewilderment at being unceremoniously dumped in Ben Gurion airport after entering illegally on an American military aircraft at just 11 years old. Yet, he lingers very little on the experience of how it must have felt to have been forced out of Uzbekistan, even if his father had sent him away before they were forced out.
Before the UJS trip, I had started to learn that from the Palestinian perspective, many felt they had been forced to flee a land that had been in their family for generations. They had a story not entirely dissimilar to that of my grandfather and it made me want to understand the Palestinian narrative as well as to learn about yet another facet of Israel, not just from the perspective of the Six-Day War, but from that of Al Nakba (The Disaster).
When I saw the opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine from this perspective, I signed up. I was sceptical at first, Jewish and Zionist I may be but I had come on this trip to receive at least relatively unbiased information on the conflict and the respective realities of Israel and the occupied territories. I was not sure a Jewish organisation was capable of delivering information on a topic so close to home in this way, however my doubts proved unfounded.
In the space of a single week we were carefully guided by our knowledgeable and dynamic tour guide through Israel and Palestine and her unique and fascinating politics, beginning from the history of Israel’s founding in the aftermath of the Holocaust in 1948 from both the perspective of Israeli independence and Al Nakba, up to the present day situation between Israel and the occupied territories, as well as being taught the land’s political and biblical significance to all religions with an attachment to it; from Bedouins, to Muslims, to Arab Christians, to Jews.
Our tour began in Jerusalem, which is considered the holiest city in Judaism. It is also the location of the Al Aqsa Compound, the third holiest site for Islam, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest in places Christianity.
This was a city I had been to many times growing up, both with family and on school trips. From those, I had learnt so much about Jewish history; from Abraham’s sacrifice of ram instead of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, to the Jewish resistance to the Roman empire on Masada, to the fourth female president in the world and one of the women who was seminal in the founding of Israel as we know it today, Golda Meir.
It was on this trip, however, that I first saw the utterly bizarre blurred line between segregation and cohabitation that existed in Jerusalem. It was so strange to see people in such close quarters and to hear from our tour guide that the meditative beauty of the Al Aqsa Compound, at the heart of which stands a majestic gold-domed mosque, veiled a reality so tense that as Jewish people, we were told not to make any gesture of prayer. Even a movement of our lips was not permitted because it could spark a riot and possibly result in our arrest from the Israeli soldiers stationed to keep the peace. I could think of no situation more fitting to sum up the Israel-Palestine conflict.
For those that do not know, the Al Aqsa Compound, or the Temple Mount as it is known to the Jews, is at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. To this day, some extreme sects of Orthodox Jews desire the right to build the third temple there after the second one was destroyed in 70CE and Palestinians have fought to retain control of the area which is heavily patrolled by Israeli soldiers.
Yet this reality was contrasted by shopkeepers trying to sell their wares with zeal in the Muslim Quarter; enormous mounds of cumin, za’atar, sumac and baharat scented the white streets, cashmere mostly in the form of scarves framed doorways in an array of colours and cajoling requests to enter and buy whatever you like could be heard everywhere.
Just a few alleys away in the Christian Quarter there were the awe inspiring murals in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, according to our guide, the conflict over which parts of the church belonged to the different sects of Christianity was settled by an Arab family who had held the keys to the church for generations.
Finally, in the Jewish Quarter, the Kotel, or the Western or Wailing Wall, and its beautiful sandstone towered over everything, with Jews of varying levels of belief praying and cramming tiny pieces of paper into crevices already overflowing with scrunched up prayers and wishes.
The atmosphere lurched from religious to mercenary to military and back again.
This atmosphere was highlighted when one of the girls dressed in a hijab from the trip told me that some Israeli soldiers had interrogated her and a few other people who were also Muslim when they tried to enter the site of the Kotel and had been subjected to derogatory comments in the process.
I could understand racial profiling, however politically incorrect it might be, in a country where terrorist attacks have occurred on average 65 times a year between 2000 and 2017; they could not afford not to. However, being unnecessarily derogatory is not only demeaning, but worsens an already tense situation. After hearing of this incident as well as the way access to West Jerusalem was restricted for Palestinians that worked there, Jerusalem was no longer only ‘Yerushalayim shel Zehav’ (Jerusalem of Gold); it had a darker aspect too.
Jerusalem was a city whose reality, like the rest of Israel and Palestine, had been wrought by a terrorist organisation and a country that for all that I love about it has a corrupt far-right political party at its helm and a sometimes overzealous army. The tragic thing was that both Israeli and Palestinian civilians were caught in the middle. I could only conclude that Jerusalem being recognised as the uncontested capital of Israel by the United States was fitting as such only because it epitomised the complexity of the relationship Israel has with religion, with Palestine and with other countries in the Middle East.
A mere forty five minute drive away from Jerusalem is Tel Aviv, the first truly Israeli city, built by settlers beginning in 1909. Predating that, the land was merely sand dunes dotted with the occasional plot of land, and Jaffa Port which had been in use since the Bronze age.
Tel Aviv quickly became the vibrant place I know today, and my personal experience of it has always been the cosmopolitan plurality I experience in London. I think on this trip, I was more aware of it. With the rhetoric of the Palestinians comparing Israel to a colonised land ringing in my ears, I regarded people of Yemenite descent, black, white, people in beach attire, orthodox rabbis, women in full burkas, hijabs and Niqabs all free to enjoy everything Tel Aviv has to offer with a sense of relief. In comparison to the sometimes troubled atmosphere In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv could be a middle eastern California.
The lowest point of the trip for I, though equally the most impactful, was meeting the Palestinian ambassador Dr Amal Jadou. We went into the occupied territories to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I wanted nothing more than to go back to the Israeli members of my family and tell them with sincerity, “it isn’t what you think, I’ve been to the occupied territories and terrorism is an extreme faction not generally representative of Palestinians.” That was not the case.
Unfortunately, we had our phones confiscated at the door so I couldn’t record what I heard, but Dr Amal Jadou openly and unequivocally condoned terrorism against Israel. Despite the fact that the government was now encouraging non-violent methods to Palestinians, terrorists were “freedom fighters”.
Treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank is hideously unfair from my perspective. Just a few weeks ago, 25 people were left homeless after Israel demolished their homes because they were deemed a security threat by being built too close to the wall. Yet for an ambassador of a prospective country to openly call terrorists freedom fighters struggling under a colonialist yolk to a group of British students, it left me wondering if there was a viable alternative Israel had to occupation with the current reality.
There were plenty of other things Jadou spoke of. Palestine in an international context, the shambles of the Arab world and how that affected Palestinians and many other topics that would have held my attention had I not heard her list terrorism as a means of resistance. I could only imagine what she thought of Israel’s right to exist. The victims of extremism could have been my family had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was left questioning in despair how on earth was Israel meant to withdraw from Palestine without the risk of a second Gaza, which in 2017 had fired 35 rockets into Israel in the space of a year? How was Israel supposed to conduct peace talks with Palestine when so many people resented its methods of self-defence and furthermore denied its very right to exist, never mind to self-determination?
Hearing a panel of members from the major Israeli political parties left me feeling equally hopeless. The representative from Likud, the current party in power headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, referred to the occupied territories as Judea and Samaria, a name which encompasses the idea that Palestine was never a state and renders the Palestinian people a stateless vestige of British occupation. The representative, although open to questions, made it very clear that Israel now prioritised its own security over Palestinian statehood. With constant threats of terrorism and the proposition of a Palestinian state having failed with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Likud response seemed to be to gradually push the Palestinians out of the West bank. I was left questioning once more if peace was ever obtainable if the Palestinian response was terrorism and the Israeli response was to further encroach on controversial land that would only incense the Palestinians further.
Roots, an organisation providing a platform for Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank to interact, provided welcome relief. We listened to a Palestinian speak of his point of view on the West Bank and the controversial proposition of a one-state solution, as well as a rabbi who previously denied Palestine’s right to exist but had arrived at the opposite conclusion after attending Roots’ meetings. His ideas of how Israel looked was certainly not the same as his Palestinian counterpart, however, one thing they both agreed on was that there needed to be less segregation between the two nations, both externally and situationally.
It was heartening to hear two people on opposite sides speak with such honesty and integrity about the two realities of life in Israel and Palestine. It left me wondering if perhaps a peaceful revolution on the ground propagated by organisations like Roots was what could plant the seeds of change.
As I finish this article I feel a heavy sense of pressure and obligation. The limited knowledge I had, and the amount I still have to learn, of both narratives in the situation of the Israel-Palestine conflict meant I went on that trip and left with a more or less an open mind. I did my best to question everything I heard, discuss with the amazing group I was lucky enough to experience Israel in this way with and understand the situation for as close to what it is as possible.
Yet, those who do not have an open mind, or feel they cannot afford to have one, will always struggle to acknowledge the other reality, whichever side of the wall that narrative might side with. I hope that in reading this, people will think before condemning a country and situation that is so difficult to know and truly understand and start to instead feel the obligation that I felt in going on this trip; to try and understand Israel and the conflict for what it is. I shall conclude by encouraging each and every person to go to Israel and the occupied territories for themselves, to experience everything Israel has to offer and question everything you see and hear from all perspectives and all sides.