Who would have thought my last trip of 2020 — before the world shut down — would have been to the West Bank?
I have been privileged to travel to Israel many times throughout my life, even living there for a brief stint. My visits — like most Jewish people’s — often started in Tel Aviv, focused on Jerusalem and the Western Wall, and included trips north and south to experience and understand what the country has to offer and the importance of its existence.
This visit, however, was quite different. At the end of February 2020, I had the honor of joining an invitation only Encounter program — an immersive experience in the West Bank for Jewish leaders that aims to cultivate more informed and constructive leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What we saw, learned, and heard are critical for everyone — and the Jewish community in particular — to understand to ensure a better future for the people of Israel-Palestine.
Already politically to the left, I landed in Israel open minded and curious for the four days ahead. On day one, after breakfast (and lots of coffee) in Jerusalem, we set out for Bethlehem. We first met Sami Awad with Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit Palestinian organization committed to fostering peace, justice, and understanding of the Holy Land. Sami, a peace activist and respected leader in the field of conflict transformation, began by asking us “What is the foundation needed to establish the political solution?” This question stayed top of mind as we engaged with Palestinians throughout the trip.
We made our way from Sami’s powerful table setting to the overpowering barrier wall, 85% of which will run inside the West Bank when completed. While covered with colorful art and political commentary, this massive structure — comprised of concrete, fences, ditches, razor wires, sand paths, an electronic monitoring system, patrol roads, and often a buffer zone — severed communities, reconfigured travel, and cut off people from their land. I thought of Trump’s immoral border wall and the disgraceful national symbols both have become.
That evening, in small groups, we joined Palestinian hosts in their homes or local restaurants. My group of all women met a fierce female entrepreneur who drove us to her house for an incredible homemade feast. Her energy and passion for women’s entrepreneurship and leadership kept the jet lag at bay and we cooked up opportunities for collaboration. Her home, filled with visitors, family photos, and various phones ringing, was not that much different from our homes. Her story of meeting her husband in college, was not that far off from so many of our stories. As is so often the case, getting to know one another revealed just how much we have in common.
Day two began with a walk through a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Despite the close proximity of the two cities, it took at least an hour to get through. In the cold and unrelenting rain, we joined moms and kids, families, and people living their daily lives, just trying to get to work. While I understand the need for security, I couldn’t help but think there had to be a more humane way.
As the rain intensified over the course of the day, so too did our focus on the interdependence and inextricability of Israelis and Palestinians. At Sheikh Jarrah we learned about the history of the community — which spanned from Jordanian, to UNRWA, to Israeli control. Today, residency policies, evictions, and a dizzying number of restrictions limit the rights of Palestinian families in this once vibrant Palestinian area. We toured the Arab village of Silwan on the outskirts of the Old City, where we watched Israeli soldiers walk Jewish children to and from school on streets below former Palestinian homes, now populated by settlers and affixed with the Israeli flag. I felt the power of the occupation and the Palestinian people’s political powerlessness most acutely. Salah’s words from the morning, “It is good to be free for everyone,” resonated as I grappled with the power and oppression dynamics that seemed to be keeping both Israelis and Palestinians entrenched on their respective sides of the dugout.
Indeed, 300,000 Palestinian people have never voted. In East Jerusalem, for example, Palestinians are allowed to vote in municipal elections, yet they do not participate. There is no incentive to vote and little to no education about the candidates, poll locations, and poll hours. And, you have to be able to read Hebrew. Like housing restrictions, voting disincentives ensure the status quo — even more so. As we know all too well from the US political system, if you don’t vote, you can’t make your voice heard, ensure representation for the issues you care about, and access power.
Education is yet another systemic challenge for Palestinians. We met with Huda Abu Arquob, who was involved in building the educational curriculum for the Palestinian Education Ministry; Sami Adwan, a professor who has published widely on the role of education in peacebuilding; and Lama Abu Arquob, a classroom teacher from a girls’ high school outside of Hebron. These incredible educators dove into the evolution of Palestinian education, which did not exist until a national Palestinian curriculum was developed in 1995. “As a human being, you need to know you have a national identify,” Huda poignantly added. Prior to 1995, there were two different systems: on the West Bank, students learned the history of Jordan; Palestine didn’t exist on their maps. In Gaza, they were taught Egyptian history. As Sami illuminated, “All aspects of their lives became part of the conflict.”
We spent our last day in Ramallah, a beautiful city that is the cultural, commercial, and governmental hub of the West Bank and the seat of the Palestinian Authority. It looked more like Miami than the bombed out area full of rubble I recalled seeing on TV as a teen. Sami’s question, “What is the foundation needed to establish the political solution,” continued as my through line listening to renowned Palestinian pollster Professor Khalil Shikaki. The conversation considered that Israel’s future requires a two state solution, but what does the Palestinian future require? Professor Shikaki provided important data about Palestinian youth: they are better educated than their parents, skew more liberal, and 50% want to leave the country. They don’t believe the occupation will end — even within 20 years — and think the older generation has failed them. How can a solution — peace even — be achieved if the younger, more liberal, and educated generation doesn’t plan to stick around?
From the teachers to the students to the community leaders to the activists, all shared their perspectives of the different social, political, and religious structures at play. Four intensive days is not nearly enough to fully appreciate the enormity of the challenges. Yes, Israel has a right to ensure the safety and security of its people. So, too do the Palestinians. Through Encounter, I saw the oppression. I felt the intractability. I understood the power dynamics. I also experienced the dignity, resiliency, and hope of the Palestinian people.
The conflict is the moral and religious issue facing the Jewish people, and we ignore the intertwining of lives living on the same land at our own peril. So what, as Sami asked, is the foundation for establishing a political solution? I don’t have the answer. But, I do have faith. I have faith in Huda, Sami, and Lama, and the many women doing their part for their people and gender justice. I have faith in the leaders we met who were educated abroad and chose to return, committed to new paths forward. I have faith in the activists and young people who persevere with love and curiosity. And, I have faith in the Jewish community — that we can expand our views of the conflict, engage in constructive conversation, and be a positive force for change by confronting the realities, asking ourselves tough questions, and shifting our perspective to work differently towards a durable resolution.