Photo by Alexis Marshall / Assistant News Editor
On July 11, I, along with 20 other MTSU affiliates, arrived at the Nashville International Airport to embark on a two week trip to Israel. We were giddy and excited, marvelling at what sights we would see and the rich history we would learn. What we weren’t expecting: a real world lesson in the volatility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Going to Israel was like entering a parallel dimension. It was like southern California, but unlike the Pacific sun, the Middle Eastern climate was hot with tension and competing narratives. Everything was contentious. I did the research before I went. I knew a lot of the history. I felt like I prepared as best I could, and yet, when I arrived, my brain was like an empty vessel. Simple words were heavy with connotations and carried with them were thousands of years of conflict. Is Zionism a religious movement or a nationalist one? Is the end of the state a border or a ceasefire line? Is the West Bank liberated or occupied? Are metal detectors on the Temple Mount a necessary security measure or an infringement on Muslims’ fragile autonomy in the region?
I spent the next week and a half wrestling with these questions, and I am no closer to any answers.
On my first Friday in Israel, a prayer day for practicing Muslims, our group received word that there was shooting on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli police stationed on the Temple Mount complex. Two police officers and all three gunmen were killed in a shootout. The entire site was shut down for two days.
We were in northern Israel near the border of Lebanon, but this news deeply affected the people we met. In Kibbutz Malkiya, we met with young soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. One of the guides, manic in his demeanor, vehemently denounced Palestinians, calling them cowards, too weak to “fight the fight.”
Despite the obvious fervor my guide had for conflict, one of the young soldiers pulled a few of us aside. He said that they weren’t all like him. He told us that he wished for peace. This young man, only a week away from his 21st birthday, told us that he dreamed of studying music at Berkley after finishing his two years of compulsory military service.
I wrote in my journal that night, “How strange, and how human.”
The Temple Mount reopened July 16 but with increased security and metal detectors. Because the gunmen came from inside the compound, Israeli officials insisted that the security measures were necessary. It is worthy to mention that there are metal detectors at the entrance to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
My last morning in the Old City, I ventured off to a market near the Jaffa Gate. I met Palestinian shop owners, delighted to learn that I spoke even the most limited Arabic. Trying not to pry, I asked a few what it was like to live in Jerusalem as a Palestinian.
The overwhelming response was “hard.”
Qussay was my barista at a cafe near the gate. We spoke for nearly an hour on the subject, and he confessed that Palestinians feel like second class citizens in Israel. In the book our class read in preparation for this trip, we learned the declaration of independence for Israel, which states in part, “(The State of Israel) will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Despite the best intentions of the founders of the state, Israel is struggling to uphold all of these principles. On the first day of our tour, our guide, Ronny Simon, explained the difficulty of balancing security, demographics and democracy. He said that if the state lost its focus on security or demographics, it couldn’t survive; it would either be overpowered by its neighbors or lose its Jewish majority. He said the state hasn’t compromised its democracy yet, but he made it clear that of those three pillars he would pick democracy to crumble first.
What was perhaps most jarring about my visit was the way that people could speak about each other. Ronny shared with us some very negative sentiments about Palestinians and Arab culture as a whole. Meanwhile, Palestinians encourage throwing rocks at IDF soldiers to express their discontent. People from both sides sometimes spoke in such generalizations that they were nearly blinded by bitterness and resentment. And some of it I could understand. Palestinians are rightfully upset that the land they lived on for hundreds of years is owned and occupied by outsiders. Many Israelis were raised by survivors of the Holocaust. They feel that Israel may be the only place on Earth that they are safe. In so many ways both sides are right. Both have done wrong at the cost of human life.
I learned more in my eleven days in Israel than I could have ever gotten out of a full semester in the States. I got so much information, and yet, upon returning home, I realize I am far more confused on where I stand with regard to Israeli politics than I was before I left. That is not to say that the study abroad course didn’t do its job. Before I left, I was somewhat conflicted with my surface level knowledge. Now I’m just lost in the trenches. I hope that someday if I keep digging I can get to the core of these issues and figure out where I stand, but there are no easy answers.
Now that I’ve returned, tensions are still high in Jerusalem. I’m keeping up with this story because I feel intimately connected with its development. Maybe that’s the spell that Israel casts over people. Maybe that’s the reason that, for millennia, different empires have warred over the region. All that I know for certain is that I must return. So, when I boarded my flight from Tel Aviv to New York, I knew better than to say “goodbye” to this crazy, contentious spot of land.
Instead I said, “See you soon.”
This is an opinion, written from the perspective of the writer and does not reflect the views of Sidelines or MTSU.
To contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.