JFK Layover

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow could I not be anxious?

“Oh  – you’re going to Israel? You’re going to have such a wonderful vacation! Why, I remember when Lizzie and I went, back in 2005 – hang on, I’ve got a picture of us both on a camel here somewhere. Make sure you spend some time down at the Dead Sea. You’ve been before, right?”

Except – this is not a vacation. In spare hours between my “day job” and (neglected) family, I’ve been trying to cram in the required reading, the videos we’re supposed to have watched. Trying to arrange meetings with the principals of the peacebuilding project Devon and I have been supporting for the past five or so years. And trying not to get terribly depressed by the apparent futility of Mideast peace.

Like most kids, I was brought up with a single narrative of Israel. In my case, it was the Israeli story: my grandparents fled Europe, just ahead of Hitler’s grasp, when no nation would take Jews in. They bought land in the British protectorate of Palestine, liberated from the Ottomans during The Great War (did we really have to tempt fate by calling it “The Great War”?). My grandparents found their way to a kibbutz in the north and set about with their fellow pioneers making the desert bloom with pears and…oh, I don’t remember what. When the British left, the land was to be partitioned into two states: one Jewish, and one Arab. But, according to the narrative, the neighboring Arab countries told their Palestinian brethren to get out of the way – that they were going to drive the Jews into the sea, after which the Palestinian Arabs could have it all to themselves. The ensuing war – called “War of Independence” by the Israelis, and the “Nakbah” or “Catastrophe” by the Arabs, didn’t turn out as they had expected. The Jews, having seen in the Second World War that no one would come to their aid, had transformed themselves into brave and brilliant soldiers, defending themselves and their beloved orchards from invading enemies on three fronts. And since then, those same Arab nations have been playing the Palestinian Arabs as pawns, inciting them to violence in a proxy war against a Jewish state that just wants to live in peace.

So – that’s what I was brought up with in Hebrew school. And that’s what I remember from my Israel Study Tour, at age fifteen. Bouncing through the Negev on an old Egged bus with a couple dozen other American kids, sent by our parents to see Eretz Yisrael – the manifest miracle – ourselves. To connect with the land of my parents, of my grandparents, of the “us” that made it so. And to peer across the fence at Rosh HaNikra, across the straits of Eilat – at “them”.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized there even was another story. There’s always another story, of course, at least one other. On the other side of those fences, boys like me were being told of how their grandparents welcomed the Jewish settlers – at first – until it became clear that the newcomers planned to take all the land for themselves. Of how they were betrayed, and how the Israelis, backed by Western ambition to drive a wedge between Arab states, drove them from their land,  bulldozed the olive groves of their ancestors. and erased any evidence that another people had ever been there. Of how all they wanted was to return to their homes, the homes of their grandparents.

Now, at fifty, I’ve heard plenty of that side, too, and I can’t take either one as unvarnished truth. In neither of these stories is there any room for the other. And so here I go – here we go, Devon, I and a dozen others, to see and hear these stories firsthand, as well as the stories of those who are trying to find a middle path. As I said, this is a work trip. Our days are going to be stacked with meetings and site visits, three or four a day, for as long as we can stave off the the jet lag. Peacebuilding initiatives from both sides, job training and employment programs for Haredi and Palestinian youth, each of whom have been taught from birth of the impossibility of the others’ existence here. Advocacy efforts and environmental reclamation projects. The works. It’s going to be exhausting, but more, it’s going to be heartbreaking.

It’s also, I know, going to be wonderful. Nervewracking. Inspiring. Depressing. Beautiful. All of these at some time, and probably more than a few at once. It’s going to be everything. But not a vacation.

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