"Try not to die" was the last thing someone in my Birthright group said to me as I said my goodbyes to to the 30 or so Americans and Israelis at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
As they boarded the plane back to the United States and I tried to get comfortable in my sherut back to Jerusalem, I was becoming convinced that heading to the West Bank, a part of the Occupied Palestinian territories was, in fact, "extremely dangerous and stupid for a Jewish American girl," and that I had made a horrible mistake.
For almost two weeks, and for my entire life really, my mind had been ambushed by the Israeli narrative -- an epochal storyline I had previously accepted as a result of my own experiences of traveling to the concentration camps in Poland and hearing familial stories of persecution throughout much of 20th century Europe -- but I had also begun to question the validity of the 'official truth.'
The Israeli raconteur, like all historical narrations, is manufactured to be conveniently one-sided. I knew the prism I saw the conflict through required some cognitive adjustment, but I was unprepared for the sudden and very difficult rebalancing that occurred the moment I crossed through Qalandia checkpoint on my way to Nablus.
An enormous red sign read 'access into "Area A" is restricted to Israeli citizens, forbidden by law, and dangerous to their lives.' If I wasn't horrified enough, I continued driving past miles of the separation wall with a complete stranger named Hijazi who later became a friend and tour guide equally desperate to show me the realities of the occupation as I was to hear about and see them.
My first real experience of the hostility of the Israeli occupation was in 105 degrees of desert heat, when our car was stopped for 30 minutes as we waited to cross through an Israeli ad hoc checkpoint. As Hijazi asked for alternate directions, Israeli soldiers swore and kicked his car for no apparent reason trying to provoke Hijazi's calm. As we changed routes, he later joked that at least he wasn't arrested.
That became less of a joke when I later discovered the dehumanizing tenants of the occupation, including the all-too-frequent night raids conducted by Israeli forces on Palestinian villages, which often end in arrests of innocent children, who are taken to untold locations and held for days at a time or else tried in military courts.
Hijazi barely had to say anything about the asymmetries that the occupation had spawned -- I stared in disbelief at black water cisterns dotting the roofs of Palestinian homes, which are required because Palestinians are obligated to buy water from Israelis and ration the unreliable and inequitable provision; I passed by his friends' houses, which were evacuated or demolished because they were built without Israeli permits, only to later find myself in adjacent Israeli settlements built on private Palestinian land; and I was brought to tears when we spent time in Balata refugee camp, just one of the deeply devastating camps for displaced Palestinians.
I spent the rest of my trip with Extend, an incredible organization that brings Jewish-American students to the West Bank. We were met with unparalleled hospitality and repeated appreciation for coming to the West Bank to hear and experience the realities of the occupation. But I often wondered who was more embarrassed: myself, along with six other American-Jewish 20-somethings who were politically privileged and hoping we could make a difference, or the Palestinians, who appreciated our curiosity but were saddened by the power our privilege gave us in determining their livelihoods in the future.
We observed the asymmetry in force between Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian civilians in villages like Bil'in from a little girl who tripped over one of the many Israeli tear gas canisters that hide the ground outside of her home while chasing a butterfly, and in Nabi Saleh from a man who had lost his brother-in-law when rock-throwing was met by live ammunition; we learned about Israel's control over electromagnetic spectrum allocation from Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian educated in Israel, whose attempts to deploy 3G throughout the area were blocked by the Israeli government who, in violation of international law, have prohibited the creation of a Palestinian telecom sector while allowing an Israeli company's monopoly over service provision; we discovered the lack of opportunity from an engineering student at An-Najah National University, one of the thirty-percent of unemployed Palestinians whose life will be increasingly made difficult without a domestic technology sector and stagnant economy at the hands of Israel isolating Occupied Palestine from globalization; we also saw the horrible and inhumane atrocity that is Hebron, a city divided into two sectors where Palestinian movement is restricted and monitored by Israeli forces and panoptic structures and their once-vibrant marketplace is a shuttered ghost town.
Throughout my experience, the words of former senior advisor to Hillary Clinton and someone I consider an important personal influence, Alec Ross, echoed through my mind: "Liberty without security is fragile, but security without liberty is oppressive," as I tried to balance the genesis of extreme ideologies in a rights-based paradigm of freedom versus security. I was deeply affected by signs of a deteriorating rapport induced by hostile governments, but manifested between the two peoples.
Before construction on the separation wall began in the 2000s, Israelis and Palestinians coexisted peacefully for the most part -- many parents of my Israeli and Palestinian friends recalled positive memories involving 'the other side' and likened their proximate relationship to that of close cousins. But, a horrible vilification process started with the creation of that wall, dividing strong ties by barbed wire and border guards. Israeli and Palestinian best interests and need-based ideologies are complementary but the physical distance between the two peoples has pushed an even greater barrier between their human understandings of one another.
Since the eruption of the most recent conflict, I have repeatedly been asked, with reference to my identity as an American Jew, about my evidently pro-Israel politics. But just as there are many, often-overlooked shades to this conflict, so too does my identity remain far from zero-sum. What I learned from my experiences in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is that identifying as an American Jew is not a disqualifying pre-requisite for being pro-Palestine, pro-peace, and pro-Israel all at the same time, but ignorance is.
It is our responsibility to understand the other side of our birth right, seek out and highlight moderate voices, and reinvigorate balanced and fair discourse of the conflict in order to protect and propel the livelihoods of people on both sides.
We must confront the walls in our minds for the separation wall to crumble in favor of a genuine peace.