I took my first trip to Israel at age four to visit the kibbutz that my grandparents helped to found as part of the HaShomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement, and where my mother was born. The most salient details I remembered were the taste of popsicles and the feeling of mosquito bites, and until last week I hadn’t been back since then. On this recent trip, I hoped to grasp a better, more tangible understanding of why Israel was so vital for people like my grandparents, and to hear directly from Palestinians what it was like for them to live there.
I spend a lot of time thinking about Israel, but up until two weeks ago, I didn’t have any sense of what the country was like, only a conceptual understanding. When I heard that my childhood synagogue in Palo Alto, California, was leading a multi-narrative tour of Israel, I asked to go with my parents. Over the course of ten days, we toured Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Galilee, and the West Bank, hearing from Israeli and Palestinian speakers from a variety of backgrounds.
The experience that impacted me the most was our encounter with two members of the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatants for Peace, which aims to build a joint activist community of Israelis and Palestinians. The NGO facilitates encounters and discussion between the two groups, has programs to protect Palestinian farmers and prevent land confiscation, and co-sponsors the annual joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony each year.
Each position in the organization is staffed by two people: an Israeli and a Palestinian. Our group met with Osama Elewat and Moran Zmir in Deir Hajla, a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean Desert.
Osama began by introducing himself and his good friend Moran, who was sitting quietly by his side. They took turns telling their stories. Moran told us that, like many Israelis, he grew up hearing sirens and being afraid of Palestinians, and never really had meaningful interactions with them. He told us of his service in the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza, where he and his unit would rush into houses to look for members of the terrorist group Hamas. They would take houses over for days to use as bases, forcing the families inside to huddle in a room until they were free to come out. This is one example of something that raised concerns for Moran during his service.
Sometime after, he came upon the annual Combatants for Peace Memorial Day event, which honors the terrible losses that both Israelis and Palestinians have faced, and has been working side by side with Palestinians, who have become some of his closest friends, ever since.
Osama told a life story with mirroring themes from the opposite perspective. He was thrown in jail at 14 for hoisting a makeshift Palestinian flag up into a tree. As he grew up, he was taught to fear Jews. Not Israelis or Israeli soldiers, but—and he winced as he said it—Jews. His first encounter with Israelis had been on the way to elementary school, when an army jeep blocked his path and soldiers emptied his bag onto the pavement. He had a similar experience to Moran, where he happened upon a Combatants for Peace meeting and heard Israelis speaking about his people with kindness and humanity, something that initially shocked him.
I was struck by Osama and Moran’s openness and readiness to share their stories, and especially Osama’s willingness to share his story with a group of Jewish people. My biggest takeaway was that this sharing of stories was vastly important in the overall work of reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Throughout my trip, I was affected by the complex and contradictory emotions that Israel elicited. I was in awe of and connected with the Jewish traditions and practices all around me, from the mezuzot on the doorposts of my hotel to the person on the beach in Tel Aviv who told us “Shabbat Shalom.”
At the same time, I came away from the Combatants for Peace meeting, and the trip in general, with contradictory feelings of both urgency and helplessness. I felt moved to action by what I saw and heard about the life experiences of both Israelis and Palestinians from around the small country.
For those of us worried that there isn’t much we can act on here at home in Boston, I urge you, through Boston Partners for Peace, to get involved with Combatants for Peace. Join Osama, Moran, and others like them, who are working to show Israelis and Palestinians the humanity of “the other side” through direct discussion and person-to-person contact.