by Georgia Duffy
I decided to approach my trip to the Holy Land with an open mind and heart. I was fully aware of how contentious the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be but seeing the everyday reality told a different story. No doubt the issue is polarising, but I believe it is important to acknowledge both sides of the argument even if you are assured of your own views.
Personally, I have strong sympathies towards the Palestinian cause as I support their struggle for recognition and validation. Nevertheless, I do not turn a blind eye to the injustice of terrorism and furthermore, I do admire the solace that Jewish people find in returning to their ancient homeland. My main assertion, however, is that the Palestinian people and nation should not be disregarded in order to strengthen a new state. History teaches us to learn from the past and create a better future, but lessons about segregation and division seem to have been conveniently forgotten.
The journey to Israel was difficult, to say the least. Myself and a handful of fellow “suspicious” students on the trip were apprehended at Heathrow Airport by airline staff; we were mostly ethnic minorities or had some connection to Islam. It took two hours of intense questioning, unnecessary delays, and an invasive body search for us to be allowed on the plane. I was questioned on my ‘Britishness’, and whether I was a student, even though I was travelling as part of a university trip. Stripped of my belongings and my dignity, this was the first time I had faced systematic discrimination.
The alarm was raised when I explained I would be extending my trip to stay with my fiance’s family in Jerusalem; they are Palestinian. The Holy City is their historic home too, but because their village is Arab and Muslim, it was deemed a problem. I cried, but my fiance later reassured me that even though he is a full citizen of Israel, he is still subjected to these humiliating and ‘random’ security checks every time he returns home. Despite the upset, however, this experience did not discolour my opinion of the entire nation, and I cannot thank the staff of the UJS enough for all their support. Although security was long and weary, the trip turned out to be incredible and eye-opening.
The cobbled streets of Jerusalem revealed untold truths about empires and crusades of old. Ordinary people weaved in and out of the busy marketplace, going about their daily lives in the disputed city. There may be little difference between ‘shalom’ and ‘salam’ but neither this, nor a shared love of hummus, is enough to bring two nations together. The indistinguishable attire of faith leaders in the centre for all Abrahamic religion, makes you question why there is even a conflict at all? Cross over into the West Bank, however, and you can understand why.
My friend recalls witnessing a young boy, no older than six, being ordered to remove his shoes for a security check by an armed Israeli soldier. It made me realise that in the West, we take for granted the idea that such belligerent behaviour has been banished with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid; but this wall still exists.
How could this ever be right? Surely it only deepens the ‘us and them’ divide and feeds a vicious cycle of hatred between the oppressor and the oppressed? The value of injustice may be in the eye of the beholder, but my heart ached for Palestinians who face a bleak life behind a fortified, concrete wall.
These heavy feelings continued when we travelled to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz only a few kilometres away from the Gaza border. There are an estimated 1.8 million Palestinians confined to this small strip of land and they hold ‘March of Return’ protests every Friday as a mark of resistance. As the remnant fumes of tear gas filled my lungs, it was so hard to spectate as people fought for their freedom. I am privileged, whilst they are trapped.
On the kibbutz, our lovely guide described her idyllic childhood in a tight-knit community and expressed how she and Palestinians were once good neighbours until the troubles of Hamas began. Her heart broke for the Gazans but also for her family who are now subjected to a repeated bombardment of rockets and shrapnel from across the border; innocent people caught up in the dire straits of conflict.
This experience made me question whether there could ever be a peaceful solution. On the one hand, Gazans are isolated from historic Palestine and are shunned by surrounding Arab countries, whereas peaceful citizens in the kibbutz favoured hard borders for their own protection. Victimhood is clearly complex.
Ultimately, my views were not changed but the experience definitely expanded my horizons. I was fascinated to learn about Jewish history and the Jewish community’s age-old struggles which also reminded me of the Arabs of 1948 who were banished from their homes too.
It is evident that a sense of diaspora shapes both communities, but unfortunately, it does little to create cohesion. The simple pleasures of life remain the same whether you are Israeli or Palestinian; one can appreciate the beauty of the Holy Land without its hostile politics. If only coexistence were so simple.
Across an increasingly hostile landscape, my trip to ‘Roots’ was the glimmering beacon of hope. They are a charity based in the West Bank who run community projects to facilitate meetings between local Israeli settlers and Palestinians; two worlds that never collide can become one in this vibrant and safe environment. Their emphasis on the power of building bridges broke the mould for me. Restoring dignity and creating peace should be done through respectful dialogue, but I also feel a strong urge to fight injustice wherever I see it. It became clear that I could stand with Palestine but also respect the right of Israel to exist.