This week: a message from Director of Israel Engagement Eli Cohn-Postell
Seemingly every #JCRCinIsrael Study Tour centers around one major news story. Last winter, we left for Israel just after President Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the Embassy there. Over the summer, we had many conversations about Israel’s nation-state law, which had recently passed in the Knesset. But this time, our group of 11 municipal leaders from around the Commonwealth had the luxury of experiencing Israel without one emerging news story dominating our discussions. Our speakers were able to step back and highlight some of the long-term tensions that give rise to the region’s complexity. During our time in Israel, our group came to understand that failing to appreciate this complexity is one of the central dynamics perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During our time in Jerusalem, we went on a tour with Danny Tirza. A retired IDF colonel, Danni is the chief architect behind what he calls Israel’s “security fence.” He brought us to two stops: first to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and then to see a checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb where Palestinians enter Israel from the West Bank. Danny told us about the steps that he took to balance Israel’s security concerns with the potential for humiliation that the security fence would cause Palestinians. Most of us left our time with Danny believing that he did his best to minimize the daily impact that Israel’s security apparatus has on Palestinians.
The next day we sat with peace activists from the Roots program including Noor Awad, a Palestinian who grew up in Bethlehem in Area A of the West Bank. Noor told us that growing up, his family would visit the beaches of Tel Aviv and Jaffa on weekends, until the “separation wall” (i.e. Danny’s “security fence”) made that an impossibility. He now feels stuck, lacking the basic freedom of movement that he once had. Despite Danny’s best efforts to reduce these feelings, they are still the reality for Noor and many others in his community.
Later in the week we spent time visiting a moshav near the Gaza Strip. We sat in a bomb shelter underneath a children’s playground as our hosts showed us a mortar that had been fired into the community from Gaza. Our participants were surprised to hear that there are no drills in this community that help children learn to seek shelter, since the threat they face is not a theoretical one where survival might be aided by advance preparation. The constant firing from Gaza into Israel means that everyone knows to run to shelter when they hear the Red Alert siren, even if they do not fully understand the danger.
Many of us were also thinking about the children living only a few minutes away in Gaza. They too deal with the violence plaguing this area, but no one is requiring bomb shelters to be built for them. The fact that Israel places such higher value on human life and the protection of its people than the Hamas government in Gaza only compounds the trauma faced by innocent families in Gaza amid one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet.
These stories underscore a troubling reality. For many Israelis and Palestinians, the peace process has brought them further from peace. We heard from many of our speakers that regardless of their personal narratives, they feel deep pain at the lack of basic interaction between Jews and Palestinians.
On our last day in Jerusalem one of our participants asked how these opposing narratives can be reconciled to create a coherent whole. I responded by saying that the goal is not to create one unified narrative, but rather to recognize the validity of the other’s narrative. This is the most important step of the Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding process, and it is why our first Pages for Peace book club will be reading The Lemon Tree in 2019 (young adults 22-40 can sign up here to join a group in Cambridge/Somerville, Brookline, or Jamaica Plain).
To be allies to those working every day for peace, we must sit with competing and sometimes uncomfortable truths. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be viewed as black and white, and it takes openness and humility to live in the gray area. What impressed me most this week was the ability of so many people to do just that.