One rabbi’s trip to Israel/Palestine in 2018 challenges her ideas about Israel, and offers new insight into the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians.

I follow a spiritual practice that focuses on the paradox of our lives. That is, to learn to hold both/and. Sorrow and joy. Bitter and sweet. Pleasant and unpleasant.

This paradox comes into clear focus when engaging with those with whom we disagree. How to listen with an open heart even when the person or the idea is uncomfortable or even abhorrent?

That was the experience our congregants had in a recent trip to Israel (February 2018). Thanks to the expert planning of MEJDI tours and to our two thoughtful and candid guides, Israeli Jew Gal and Palestinian Christian Ramzi, we explored what I called “A Little Bit of Heaven, Hardship and Hope: Seeing Israel and Palestine With New Eyes.”

Our group met Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who are working together to understand one another, to transform the economic and educational landscape for Israeli Arabs, and to shape Israeli Jewish attitudes towards the Palestinian population. At Sindyanna of the Galilee, we were inspired by the joint venture of Israeli Jews and Arabs who are improving the agricultural sector in the Galilee and creating job training for women in local Arab villages. In Nazareth, we were inspired by a dynamic young woman who runs Founders and Coders, a computer-training program that offers Palestinian Israeli youth more avenues towards higher education and economic stability. Meeting the villagers of Ein Hud, the Arab town displaced in 1948 by the Jewish villagers who took over their homes and created the artist colony of Ein Hod, we learned about the ongoing plight of unrecognized Arab villages. And in Jisr az-Zarqa, the only Arab village along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, we spent three hours in rapt attention, listening to a description of the work of the Guest House to improve the lot of this impoverished town and to bring more Israeli Jews to vacation in their beachside village crossed by the “Israel Trail.”

We also saw both sides of the occupation fence. From the walled fortress of Rachel’s Tomb that divides the neighborhoods of Bethlehem, walking through the Bethlehem checkpoint among the Palestinians returning from work on the other side to the graffiti-covered walls that create the prison called Bethlehem and the West Bank, we saw many stark contrasts. Spending the night in the homes of Palestinians in Bethlehem who supplement their meager livelihoods by hosting foreigners, we heard heartbreaking stories and stories of resilience. In the Deheishe Refugee Camp and at Ma’arat Hamachpelah in Hebron, we met Palestinians and Jewish settlers who challenged us with their hardened positions. We also visited the Tent of Nations, where we witnessed the valiant perseverance of one family to continue their efforts to keep their land despite military threats, vandalism and violence, and court judgements against them.

Our group spent three days in Nazareth, an Israeli city that few Jewish groups visit. We stayed in a hotel in East Jerusalem, where we walked among the Palestinian population freely. In both places, we became convinced that Jewish groups gain a robust sense of the Jewish state by meeting the Christians and Muslims who live there.

By the end of our tour, everyone expressed their appreciation for the complexity of issues that they heard from the points of view of multiple narratives. Many people who had been to Israel numerous times came away “transformed.” All of them are even more deeply engaged with Israel thanks to these intimate encounters.

Throughout our trip, we developed a different perspective on the conflict, inspired by the people we met who maintained a laser focus on what they were able to accomplish without being distracted by, or in despair over, the current leadership, whether in Israel or Palestine. While we could have left with the hopelessness that there simply is no governmental initiative for resolving the conflict, many of us were heartened by the belief that when the proper leadership arises, there will be thousands of people on the ground who have been preparing for making peace. Most importantly, we all remain engaged despite the contradictions we experienced.

One traveler told me afterwards:

I’m struggling between the inspiration and hope from meeting many wonderful people on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides who are working ardently and constructively for peace and understanding. But simultaneously, neither side seems to have leadership that is willing to take the leap of faith needed for trust and moving forwards. Our trip had an added layer of political complexity as we visited with family members before the trip started—one family ardently right-wing supporters of Trump and Bibi, and the other family far more progressive, Haaretz-reading lefties. So the trip left me with a bunch of disparate pieces/tribes and without a clear path to fitting them all together.

Another traveler who has made dozens of prior trips to Israel reflected:

Aside from Bethlehem, nothing was really new to me. Bethlehem was very disturbing. First, I was disappointed in the condition of the place The discussion with the family where we stayed glaringly exposed some of the needless pettiness and stupidity on the Israeli occupation. I don’t remember the names of the man from the theater company or the one who took us on a tour around the refugee camp. Both were very personable and, on the surface, reasonable. However, I felt that both of them were committed to a return to pre-1948 that shook me.

So I’m caught between hope at the ground level work that we saw and frustration that there’s no effective leadership to enable that work or bridge the gaps. Sort of like here…

Especially now that many of our Palestinians friends cannot enter the United States and speak directly to Americans, it is imperative that we make the effort to meet them where they are. So many of these organizations exist because of Jews outside of Israel who have observed their success, and who value and support their efforts. Their work offers us the potential for working together towards peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, regardless of our political affiliation.

MEJDI TOURS—Specializing in dual-narrative tours with two guides.

http://mejditours.com

Juha’s Guesthouse in Jisr-az-Zarqa—Palestinian town between Caesarea and Ma’agan Michael.

https://www.zarqabay.com/

Ein Hod/Ein Hud—A Jewish artists’ village and the Palestinian village where the population fled from their homes in 1948.

https://www.zochrot.org/en/village/49423

Ein Hud Restaurant

https://www.rol.co.il/sites/albeet/

Founders and Coders, Nazareth—A training program, based in London.

https://foundersandcoders.com/programme/course-information/nazareth

Sindyanna of Galilee—A Jewish-Arab cooperative, supporting women’s empowerment. Buy their award-winning olive oil on amazon.com.

EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL

https://www.amazon.com/sp?seller=AOLURHLBYXYOU

Women Wage Peace—A massive grassroots movement of women demanding a mutually binding, non-violent accord, agreeable to both sides.

See Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum’s essay, “The Help We Need Right Now.”

http://womenwagepeace.org.il/en/

Tent of Nations—A gathering place to build bridges of understanding in the West Bank on the land of Palestinians who have owned their property for generations, and who are fighting the Israeli military to keep it.

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_3_9?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=sindyanna+olive+oil&sprefix=sindyanna%2Caps%2C164&crid=18LFG14QDMXOD

Roots/Shorashim/Judur—A gathering place fostering a grassroots movement of understanding, non-violence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians.

https://www.friendsofroots.net/

(We did not visit on this trip, but I’ve visited on a prior MEJDI tour.)