My experiences in Israel have been some of the most formative of my life. I was bat mitzvahed on Masada, worked in the winery of a kibbutz and made lifelong friends in the country. And yet, my relationship with Israel is complicated, like that of many progressive American Jews. I spent most of my childhood in Jewish day schools, where I was not given a comprehensive education about Israel’s founding and modern-day politics. Only when I visit the country have I been able to understand the nuances, the beauty, the trauma and the deeply complicated nature of Israeli society.
Last summer, I led a group of UC Berkeley students on a Perspectives trip with Berkeley Hillel. It was the pilot version of a trip that takes students from a wide spectrum of ethnic and religious backgrounds to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Five Jewish students came as facilitators and student leaders, yet we learned as much as the non-Jewish students. We shared stories of our families, the Holocaust, and why Zionism was so important to our refugee ancestors. My fellow students helped me see Israel with fresh eyes and to have challenging yet important conversations.
We met with settlers and Palestinians involved in the Roots Shorashim project, a joint-community effort to facilitate dialogue in the West Bank. We heard from Tal Becker, an analyst present at every recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. We spent the day with Ihab and Ora Balha, an Arab-Jewish couple living in Jaffa who founded Bustan Yafa, a bilingual kindergarten where Israeli and Arab children learn Hebrew and Arabic side by side.
I wish my years of Jewish day school education had given me this fuller perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even addressed the Palestinian narrative. When discussed, it was often dismissed as illegitimate. This does a great disservice to Jewish students. Even if we disagree with their narrative, dismissing it does nothing to solve the divides between our communities. It is unfair to teach about Israel without even addressing or showing the West Bank, not to mention the military occupation.
To criticize our own actions does not mean to absolve the other side of responsibility. American Jews are very critical of the Palestinian leadership, and rightfully so, yet asking Israeli leadership and government to take responsibility for their faults is seen as traitorous. Judaism is a faith and a culture that demands us to be proactive and responsive in the face of injustice, and we cannot reject applying this tenet to ourselves.
My experiences in Israel, and with Palestinian Americans at home, have convinced me that we have more in common than we think and that there still is potential for peace. With each new generation comes an opportunity to build bridges and community, increase dialogue and humanize each other. It is my fervent hope that we can learn to value our lives more than our ideologies.While I understand the mentality many Israelis have, that we must protect ourselves and our families — sometimes at the cost of Palestinian lives — I refuse to believe that this mentality will persist. I will not give up hope that both peoples will come to an understanding that peace and compromise will benefit us all. Resigning ourselves to a permanent state of conflict would be to give up on the Zionist dream of a homeland for the Jewish people where we are free to exist without fear.
I know this home exists in Israel. I have seen glimpses of it, in places like the Roots tent and in Ora and Ihab’s kindergarten. It is possible, and it is a dream we must strive to reach.