Until this year, I thought I knew Israel quite well for someone living in the diaspora. I had lived there for two years, met my wife there, we have a second home there, and I have visited dozens of times. But I was wrong.
After participating in a leadership mission in May organized by J Street, during which we met with West Bank Palestinians and Israeli settlers, I had to acknowledge how incomplete my knowledge had been. While I had an intellectual understanding of life across the Green Line, experiencing the reality on the ground proved to be transformational.
I was brought up to see the Palestinians as “the other,” and to the extent that I thought about them, it was mostly as people who would do anything to deny my people our Zionist dream. They were the eternal villain in a movie in which we always got to play the hero. I never really considered, or was too scared to consider, another reality.
But sitting down with representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, a new feeling emerged, one of shared vulnerabilities, needs and hopes. I realized they were not just bit players in my story but that they have their own story, one that has become inexorably intertwined with ours.
In a surprisingly open discussion, an official signaled an understanding of some of the historic mistakes their leaders have made when he told us, “This time, we are determined not ‘to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ ”
Prior to the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, there was much talk about preconditions. But the real precondition necessary for success is the ability of the leaders on both sides to see the human needs, desires and aspirations of the other side. As President Obama said in his speech in Jerusalem last March, we need to see the world through their eyes. We don’t have to agree with everything they say — but we must be willing to listen to everything they say — and demand the same from them.
So many of my fellow American Jews believe, as I did, that they know Israel because they have experienced the awe of the Western Wall, the freedom of Jews sipping coffee on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv and the sunrise from Masada, while understanding at the same time Israel’s ever-present vulnerability. What is not experienced is the reality of life across the Green Line.
Walking with my J Street group through the streets, we tend to avoid eye contact, and I notice jaws tense as we pass by. The youths are surly, clearly holding back anger. Israeli soldiers are tense with stony faces, so different from how they looked the week before on Dizengoff.
On market day in Ramallah, the streets are teeming with life. Less than half an hour away rises Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, built green from the ground up with 21st-century infrastructure. The project manager tells us, “We are not here to destroy Israel, we are here to build Palestine.”
With a resolution of the current stalemate, the young Palestinian entrepreneurs we met with will be able to build a country that Palestinians would not want to lose. Without an end to the occupation, the next generation of youths will be even less inclined to hold back.
The current negotiations offer the best opportunity in years. If this opportunity is missed, another may not come along for many years — if ever. We must let our elected representatives know that supporting the current peace talks is what the overwhelming majority of American Jews want, and what Israel needs. While it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to make the tough decisions necessary for peace, it is our sacred responsibility to provide unwavering support.
Stanley Wulf is a physician living in Berkeley.