Israel Recap Part II: Birthleft
"Bus full of Jews, with our different views
How do we know what's right? How do we choose?"
"I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience."
I've been at a loss for words all week. I returned from a "Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice" Birthright Israel trip on Monday, and I've had a hard time collecting my thoughts enough to write about anything besides falafel. I went into the trip wanting answers and a clear understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I came out with a plethora of questions. I came out utterly confused, which, as I was told several times, was one of the goals of the Union of Progressive Zionists/Israel Experts trip. We were exposed to many different viewpoints in many activities packed into 10 exhaustingly long days, and it's simply not possible to wrap everything into a neat little package.
We had a fantastic group of people on the trip. Our staff included a flawless bus driver, a very personable medic and tour guide, and two very insightful madrichim. We were joined by eight off-duty Israeli soldiers for half of the trip, and hearing from them turned out to be one of the highlights for me. The trip participants constituted "a bus full of leftists," as my friend Michelle said in her hilarious rap song, which has made its way onto YouTube. Most of the people on the trip were pretty left of center, and many were active in progressive causes, including the Save Darfur campaign, Meretz USA, and the campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace. (And as I mentioned in my last post, 14 out of 39 were herbivorous heebs.) In large group discussions and in one-on-one conversations, these were the perfect people to bounce ideas off of as we were exposed to so much and started asking so many questions.
We visited a lot of major sites that I went to eight years ago with my parents and that most Birthright trips visit. I got to go to Mount Masada, the Dead Sea, the B'Hai Gardens, Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall for the second time. The beach in Tel Aviv, a strip of nightclubs in that area, and Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem were lots of fun, as was rafting in the Jordan River. We picked onions on a farm for the Table to Table program, which distributes food to poor families. Our Shabbat experiences were restful, brought us closer together, and made me appreciate the importance of Shabbat.
It was the political dimension that made this trip unique. In Haifa, when we walked past a weekly Women in Black protest against the Occupation, half my group insisted on stopping to take pictures and talk to the protesters. We took a "socio-economic tour" of Haifa. We stayed on a kibbutz, ate at another one, and had a barbecue and a discussion session at a kvutzah (a smaller-scale Socialist commune). We went to the top of the Golan Heights and looked out into Syria. We went to a Tel Aviv peace rally marking the 40-year anniversary of the Six Day War and the Occupation and got to talk to different protesters as well as representatives from groups that were tabling. We sang John Lennon's "Imagine" and dreamed of peaceful coexistence at Rabin Square. We met with a representative from Meretz, a left-wing political party, who gave us an overview of his party and the Israeli political climate. At Tel Aviv's Independence Hall, we heard a long-winded speech that many people from my trip dismissed as right-wing propaganda, but I thought it was quite important to hear it in order to frame the entire debate. Also at Independence Hall, one speaker said, "This is not a football game," meaning that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complex and just declaring oneself as "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" doesn't get to the heart of the issues. We were hosted by an Arab-Israeli family at their home as they talked about their perspectives on the conflict. We drove along the Israel-West Bank border with Lydia Aisenberg of Givat Haviva and saw the security fence close up, looked out to the West Bank on one side and to the Mediterrean Sea (a mere 15 miles away from the border) on the other, and heard Aisenberg's stories about her interviews with Palestinians who wait for hours to get past checkpoints and who are separated from their families by the controversial fence. We attended a Parents Circle Family Forum event featuring a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man who had lost their siblings in the conflict and who shared their desires for peace. We looked out over Jerusalem and saw the security wall (only 8 percent of the barrier is a wall; the rest is a fence). We met with a speaker who urged us to consider what our connection to Israel was as American Jews.
There were so many different views, and I'm not endorsing any of them here—in large part because I don't know which ones I agree with. The only preaching I'll do at this stage is to say that it's important to listen to all sides.
I developed a closer connection to Israel. I felt like I strengthened my Jewish identity. At the Western Wall, I felt a close connection to G-d. And I certainly felt that there'd be a place for me as an activist if I ever decided to move to Israel. I just can't figure out what all this means.
It's somewhat frustrating that I came out of this experience not knowing which end is up—exhausted both physically and mentally—but I'm grateful that things worked out that way. If I went on a Birthright trip that just went to the major tourist sites and only presented one side of the conflict, I would've been significantly more frustrated and wouldn't have known where to start looking for more information. Right now, my mind is active, my reading list is long, and I feel inspired to try to start forming more sophisticated positions on the issues. It's more of a challenge than just telling people about falafel and showing them pretty pictures, but in the face of such an urgent conflict that I feel so connected to, I'm very happy to be where I am in my thoughts.