Israel: Beyond a Black and White View

02/03/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

This piece originally appeared on The Chronicle and it has been republished here with the author's permission.

"Everyone throws around the world 'terrorist' here," i24 News senior anchor and Israeli-Arab Lucy Aharish said in a small, seminar-style room. "To me, the definition of a 'terrorist' is someone who believes that he is the only one who is right. And my concern is that Israel is becoming a society of terrorists."

I heard another voice emerge in the room. Phyllis Geralby, the director of the Israel office for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a U.S.-based Jewish civil rights organization, chided Aharish for speaking generally about Israeli Jews and declining to mention terrorism in the Palestinian Authority.

"I don't care what happens in the Palestinian territories," Aharish retorted. "Israel is my country. I'm not going to judge my country on the standards of the Palestinians."

I listened to these words on the second day of my eight-day trip to Israel with the ADL over winter break. The program provided 18 college students involved in politics or journalism on campus with a diverse set of perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Here, I saw another example of how heated this issue becomes for many people.

In the United States, I heard black-and-white depictions of the conflict. Israel was either the lone democracy in a region of pervasive anti-Western sentiment or an apartheid state. I applied to the program to find the complexity around this issue. The stories I heard in Israel - from Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, Israeli Defense Force soldiers, settlers on the West Bank and political figures from the left and right - showed me that each speaker brought a kernel of truth to the debate.

Aharish talked about her experience as a Muslim in Israel. She said that Israeli schoolchildren have told her that they cannot wait until they turn 18 so they can join the military and kill Arabs. Penina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Knesset and an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant, asked how Palestinians can launch rockets aimed at Israel and then turn around and ask the international community for help. Another immigrant told our group, "There's racism, flat out. If you're black you're going to have a tough time in Israel, no matter how Jewish you are."

All of these statements can be true. While a woman of color can become a member of the Israeli parliament, other Ethiopian Jews face barriers to advancing up the socioeconomic ladder. Israeli Arabs also face these barriers. Aharish said that many Israeli news sites employ only one Arab out of 100 employees, and that these lone Arabs hear, "We're doing you a favor. Don't forget that you're an Arab" from their bosses.

Despite hearing about divisions between Jews and Arabs, I saw these two groups of people constantly brush shoulders with each other. I went into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and saw my Jewish tour guide interact cordially with Arab store-owners. I saw a video showing the work the ADL Israel office does to bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews.

I also noticed that Jerusalem -- the capital of a Jewish state with an Arab minority numbering about 20 percent of the population -- holds the Muslim call to prayer known as the adhan five times. Right-wing Israeli politicians introduced legislation to ban the prayer call in 2011 and 2014, but former Israeli President Shimon Peres said that he was "personally ashamed there are attempts being made to pass such laws." I thought about Israel when some people claimed that the nixed plans of the Duke Chapel to broadcast the adhan once a week amounted to the University prioritizing Islam over other religions. Holding the adhan simply represents an attempt for a community to provide inclusivity for a religious group.

At the same time, Israelis are right to feel concern about the 2006 Palestinian elections that gave the terrorist group Hamas a large majority. After Israel withdrew all of its presence from Gaza in 2005, it saw Hamas take control of the area just two years later. Israeli Jews reminded us that the United Nations voted for a two-state solution in 1947 - one for Jews called Israel and another for Arabs called Palestine - but Arab leaders invaded the region, refusing to accept a Jewish state. Aharish said that racism exists in the Palestinian Authority just as it does in Israel.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and senior fellow at the Hartman Institute, said that agreeing to a two-state solution is both an existential need and an existential threat for Israel. Israel cannot remain a democracy if it occupies Palestinian territories long-term, he said, and terrorists could take hold of a new Palestinian state - if the 2006 elections are any indication. Yet the Palestinians I met harbored no ill feelings towards Jews, and political figures said that most Palestinians are normal people. Sarit Zehavi, a national security and geopolitical analyst, told us that groups like Hamas win elections in this region because they are well organized and offer to build citizens three-story houses in exchange for political support.

I came away from this experience unsure of how to move forward. But all the people we met with had their own truth. Their experiences represent legitimate interpretations into the history of the conflict. We will all become closer to achieving peace - as Israelis, Palestinians or concerned members of the international community - if we refrain from intransigence and instead take all perspectives into account.