Getting Along in the Middle East
Two Michigan friends, one of Arab and one of Jewish background, journeyed together in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian Territory. They each wrote their accounts of the experience without knowing what the other was writing.
By Samantha Woll
I began my summer by volunteering on a beautiful kibbutz in the middle of the desert in Israel. Preparing to go home after six glorious weeks at Kibbutz Ketura, one of the least-privatized in the country, I sat down to check my email for the second and last time of the summer, then browsed the online journal or Web log (blog) of my friend David Enders.
Since Dave has spent most of his post-college existence in Baghdad, I value his perspective and often look to him for the in-depth information necessary to process the filtered and jaded "newsbites" thrown at me by CNN, Fox, the New York Times, AP, Reuters and the like. It also added an interesting twist to be reading about his experiences in the Middle East while being there myself.
Browsing through Dave's articles, I read about the kidnapping of other journalists, car bombings and his work trying to interview the judge in the Saddam Hussein trial. The events were nothing unusual either for Dave or Baghdad; however, what was unusual was the blog's headline, "Last Days in Baghdad." Dave said he was leaving Baghdad for Palestine before journeying back to the States.
On a whim, perhaps influenced by the region's strong custom of hospitality, I emailed Dave that I would be leaving my kibbutz in a few days for Jerusalem and then Tel Aviv, and since he was an old friend and current "neighbor," I'd like him to come over, grab some tea and relax. He accepted and we agreed to meet in Jerusalem over the next few days.
I took a bus north, arrived in Jerusalem late in the afternoon and met Dave at his hostel. We spent the next day or so wandering around the city, splurging on a nice meal or gift for a family member and chatting about our respective summers. Dave mentioned his plan of acquiring a press pass and attempting to go to Gaza and some of the settlements in the West Bank. He suggested that I might like to go with him, but my flight was set to leave in two days, and I intended to just relax with friends in Tel Aviv.
An adventure might be nice
But after a pleasant visit in Tel Aviv, right when I was about to return home, I decide it might be a nice adventure to extend my stay for a few more days and travel to Gaza or the West Bank with Dave. I text-message Dave, "Call me crazy, but I think that I am going to give it a shot (no pun intended)."
The next morning, I head back to Jerusalem to begin our adventures. The bus ride takes longer than expected because someone earlier left an unclaimed bag in the underneath storage, so at one of the security stops, all passengers have to get off while the bag and bus are inspected. No one seems upset by the delay. Back home, I could never imagine people routinely calling in late to work one day because their bus got stopped due to an unclaimed bag, but these things happen all the time in Israel and life goes on. If interruptions like this happened in New York or Chicago on a daily or even weekly basis, the results would be so bizarre as to trump even speculation. Suffice to say, people would not be happy.
Back in Jerusalem, Dave and I pack up and head for the West Bank. Dave wants to interview the so-called Hilltop Youth, a group of 18-to-20-year-old Jewish radicals who are building outposts as an extension to their settlement in defiance of both the army and the government.
We climb into a Palestinian minibus called a service (pronounced "ser-VEECE"), ride out to Jerusalem's border with the West Bank and pass through the first checkpoint relatively easily with our US passports. We get into another service on the other side. It's so strange, I think, that the 19-year-old soldiers at these checkpoints may be friends of some of the Israelis I met this summer on the kibbutz. But now I'm traveling as an American among Palestinians, and the Israeli border guards' jobs are much too stressful and dangerous for me even to think about chatting with them to see if we know anyone in common.
Our first destination is the Palestinian city of Ramallah, where we get a cab to drive us north to seek the Hilltop Youth. Soon, we reach another checkpoint where the soldiers are dead set against letting us through. I beg them in Hebrew and show them my volunteer visa to prove we're not in fact ISM (International Solidarity Movement) activists, who demonstrate alongside the Palestinians against Israeli occupation. The guards' initial assumption is that all foreigners seeking entry to the West Bank are with ISM.
Although it's a close call, my stubbornness and karma prevail, and we pass through this checkpoint and officially embark on our journey into the heart of Palestine as our cab proceeds toward Yitzhar. Yitzhar is a settlement just south of Nablus whose location is highly controversial, currently topping the chart of the Israeli government's list of settlements to dismantle next, after tackling the ones in Gaza.
After a short drive we see signs indicating the path to Yitzhar and come to a fork in the road, one prong of which ascends a steep slope. An army vehicle with a few soldiers appears and stops us for questioning. Dave and I step out of our cab, and as I chat with the soldiers in Hebrew, we learn that our cab is barred from going farther. This was our first time traveling through the West Bank, so we didn't realize how strict the borders, both visible and invisible, between the peoples are. Essentially, it is as if one were passing through an international border at the entrance and exit of each city.
You want him to take you to Yitzhar?
It was a bit embarrassing to have the soldiers point to our cab driver and laugh, "You wanted him to take you to Yitzhar?" In retrospect, it makes sense that our cab driver was not allowed to drive up the hill to the settlement. The fact that we were allowed to get out of a Palestinian taxi and then go straight into a Jewish settlement was bizarre enough as it was. Typically, passengers in a Palestinian taxi will remain in Palestinian areas, and residents of or visitors to an Israeli settlement will either ride an Israeli bus or drive/hitchhike in a car with Israeli license plates. I still wonder what those soldiers thought about our colossal faux pas.
After mocking us, the soldiers pack into their car and drive up the hill. We eye the surrounding landscape and the long steep road ahead and then begin to climb on foot. Luckily, a settler minivan comes by and we stick out our thumbs. They stop to let us climb in the back. Dave's Arabic goes into hibernation mode as I thank them in Hebrew for their kindness. The driver and his wife drop us off at the entrance to Yitzhar, and we walk around for a short while admiring the view. As Dave's mission is to interview Hilltop Youth, we eye the sporadic hilltop outposts in the distance to get our bearings.
We start chatting with some locals, many of whom were originally from North America, and buy some pita bread for lunch in the community store. Since it's Friday afternoon, the settlers speculate about possible plans for Shabbat—the Jewish day of rest—in order to be able to house and feed us properly. We are one of them; they are kind and hospitable.
We thank them for their offer but say we have other plans back in Jerusalem and in the interest of time will eat our lunch as we walk to the outposts.
Along the way I think to myself how amazing it is that you can be welcomed into someone's house once they determine you to be "one of them" and not that dreaded "other." In fact, the way that Dave and I play with "otherness," othering ourselves was the aspect of this experience that struck me the most. Sometimes we were Jews, sometimes Christians, sometimes Americans, sometimes Arabs, sometimes Canadians, French, students, journalists, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies—but always aliens, always foreign in one respect or another.
Looking out over the beautiful hills of Judea and Samaria from the outposts of the Israeli settlement Yitzhar, we can also see the remains of what was once the Palestinians' groves of olive trees, now reduced to burnt ruins. Although I cannot conclude that the entire settler community approved of such destruction, I cannot simply overlook the results either. The idea that some Israeli settlers would rather see olive groves burned down than belong to Palestinians reminds me of the biblical story of Solomon, in which two women claim to be the mother of a baby and come to Solomon for judgment. He ordered the baby to be cut in half. One woman said, "Okay, divide the child and give me my share," while the other said, "No! Please do not harm the baby. Let her have him." Solomon instantly determined who the real mother was.
Although no one can say whether the Palestinians would do the same things if the situation were reversed, it is safe to say that burning down olive trees, regardless of which people happen to be tending to them at the moment, is not an action aimed toward bringing peace or stability to the region's peoples. For me, this is also further evidence of the complete disconnect between the settler community and the rest of Israel.
I acknowledge that various deplorable actions are taking place in the West Bank. But I also bear in mind that Israeli environmentalists and scientists are working hard to develop sustainable agricultural technologies that they hope will benefit the entire Middle East and beyond. From developing a horticultural production system that uses low-pressure gravity irrigation and providing it to farmers in Niger, Africa, to developing a way to successfully fish-farm in the desert to help countries lacking fresh water feed their people, Israel not only pioneers in agricultural technology but also shares it with other regions of the world that need it.
The prolonged conflict in the region obscures Israel's positive programs for many observers, but my own background and perspective keep them in focus for me. Israeli generosity does not excuse some forcible actions taken by the state or its citizens. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the positive features of Israeli society deserve recognition, too.
As Dave and I wander to the various outposts scattered around the hills surrounding Yitzhar, we attempt to talk with the Hilltop Youth about their experiences and views. Unfortunately, we are unaware of their strong aversion to the press and are thus run out of our first settlement when I mention the word "newspaper" in my jumble of Hebrew introductions. And when a 19-year-old settler—with guns lying around just as visibly as cell phones—asks you to leave and says, "Please, I'm asking you nicely," you leave.
After receiving a similar welcome at our next two encounters, we agree not to mention newspapers or journalism any further. This tactic works. A young settler couple invites us into their home. They moved from Israel proper into a settlement and, immediately after their marriage, from that settlement to this outpost. Yet, they aren't very political; their motivation was mostly religious, which seems typical of settlers. We avoid provocative questions out of respect for their hospitality, and after a short conversation are once again on our way.
However, we have not taken into account the impact of the cell phone. Our former host soon intercepts us by motorcycle. He is carrying a large gun. His friend called him to reveal that we are journalists, and he wants to confront us with our deception. I try my best to explain that my Hebrew is not that great and to apologize for any miscommunication or confusion. He finally leaves begrudgingly, whereupon we decided that it would be better not to return to Yitzhar that afternoon.
The excursion has made me think that these people are far removed from reality. Or am I the one far removed from reality?
A few days later, Dave and I are touring the Jewish part of the city of Hebron and walk directly into a bris —the ritual that welcomes male babies into Judaism by circumcising them on their eighth day. The ceremony, which Dave and I witness from start to finish, is familiar and beautiful to me. Many of the family members present were originally American and I relate to these people on yet another level.
Looking around me at the smiling children and proud relatives, while at the same time having images of the burnt olive trees in the settlement we visited, makes me feel confused and frustrated more than anything else. Can these possibly be the "same people" as those in the illegal settlements? And if not, then did the people at the bris condone the grotesque and disrespectful actions of the settlers?
I leave Hebron unsure of how to make sense of my multilayered experience. On one hand, as a student of social justice movements in the States, how can I just walk away and be silent about the current conditions of the Palestinians living there? On the other hand, I find myself able to sympathize much more with the religious Jews celebrating one of the milestone rituals in Jewish life together as a community, thankful to be able to do so in such a sacred place as the burial site of Abraham and Sarah.
Samantha Woll '05 of West Bloomfield, Mich., is majoring in medieval history and writing an honors thesis on Jewish travelers in the Middle Ages.