07/11/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

My Own Personal Gaza

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

I grew up on Long Island, in the Five Towns, a community that was probably 95-percent Jewish.

Like most Jewish kids from Long Island, when I graduated from college, I went to Israel.

It's a kind of rite of passage.

Unlike most of my contemporaries, I had a very different experience there.

One night, at a beach resort, after a few drinks, I got into a rather heated discussion with a guy who was in the Peace Corps. He had spent the past six months in Malawi and had come to Israel for a bit of R&R.

It began as your usual "Israel and the Palestinians" discussion, but soon tempers flared.
Having the background and the education that I have (eight years at Temple Sinai, president of the youth group), I countered with all the usual responses: the Holocaust, Israel must live, worldwide anti-Semitism, Palestinian terrorism -- you name it, I had all the answers.

But the Peace Corps guy threw me a curve.

"Your problem," he said, "is that you never met a Palestinian. You should go to Gaza."

Well, that stopped me dead in my debate-team tracks. What he said was true. For all my righteous indignation over Palestinians, I had, in fact, never met a Palestinian in my life.

Go to Gaza.

Well, why not. OK. I will.

This turned out to be not-so-easy.

The next day I went to Tel Aviv and headed for the Tourist Information Office. A kindly, blue-haired matron greeted me.

"What can I do for you?" she asked.

"I want to go to Gaza."

In an instant her blue hair turned white.

"No, you don't," she said. "You want to go to a kibbutz."

I had already been to a kibbutz. I had already picked all the grapefruit I ever wanted to see.

"No," I told her, "I want to go to Gaza."

"Well... you can't," she said and turned away to deal with some other, more pliable customer.

This only made me want to go more. So the next day I headed down to Asheklon, a city just north of the Gaza Strip. Ashkelon had a big cement factory, and a lot of the workers there were Palestinians from Gaza. For a few days I hung out outside the gates of the factory, and one day I joined them in a shared taxi into the Strip.

The taxi dropped me off in Gaza City, and I spent a lot of time wandering around with my backpack, uncertain as to where to go or what to do next. I guess I must have looked a bit out of place, because someone approached me and asked who I was and what I was doing there.

I said, "I have come to meet some Palestinians."

This guy took me in his car to a place called Marna House, which was owned by an old woman named Alia Shawwa. The Shawwa family had a long history in Gaza as one of the oldest and most respected families. Mrs. Shawwa gave me a room in Marna House and fed me. She kept me there for three days, and we had long discussions over our meals.

Finally, on the third day, she turned to me and said, "Rosenblum, you are a Jew, but I trust you."

She arranged for me to move in with a family in Gaza Beach Camp, one of the bigger refugee camps.

I lived with them for a month.

Believe me, it was an educational experience.

Their lives were, in a word, terrible. (Well, what do you expect life to be like in a refugee camp?)

It changed my view of the Palestinian/Israeli situation forever.

That was in 1977!

Yes, hard to believe. Thirty-seven years ago. Mrs. Shawwa is long since dead. The people who were so kind as to take me into their homes and share their lives with me are old now. Their children are grown up. Yet nothing for them has changed.


In fact, it has grown worse.

I have been back to Gaza several times since then.

During the First Intifada, I went back as a reporter for The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. I found Mrs. Shawwa, and I moved in with a family in Jabalya Camp to report on what their life was like.

A whole lifetime for these people.

A whole lifetime living in refugee camps.

A whole lifetime of constricted possibilities and crushed dreams and aspirations.

My nephew recently went to Israel on the all-expenses-paid "Birthright" trip.

The idea is for him and other young Jewish kids to be exposed to Israel.

It might be beneficial to send them to Gaza as well.