"I was asked if the seminar will take place as planned -- the answer is yes, unless there is a total war."
That was the response in a short email sent to me in mid-July from an official at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs letting me know that a few weeks later, as planned, I would spend 10 days on a diplomatic trip to Israel.
I wasn't sure what exactly constituted "total war" -- hundred of rockets had already been launched by Hamas into Israel at that point, with airstrikes from Israel in response -- but at the very least I knew that I would be traveling to the Middle East at a consequential moment.
The reason for my going to Israel was an invitation from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its "Diplomatic Seminar for Young Leaders." As a board member of Cincinnati's Jewish Community Relations Council, and through my involvement in the public arena as a Cincinnati City Councilman, I was selected as one of 35 participants from 23 different countries around the world for the 10-day diplomatic trip. Others came from countries as diverse as Brazil to Belarus, Italy to Australia, Canada to the Czech Republic.
During normal times, there are approximately 1,000 foreign correspondents stationed in and around Israel -- though as one diplomat remarked to me, "Are there ever really normal times in the Middle East?"
During times of escalated conflict, there are as many as an additional 700 journalists, giving Israel more foreign correspondents per capita than any country in the world.
While the news reported from the region has remarkably broad reach, it sometimes still feels distant and inaccessible to many people -- missing what it actually feels like to be in the Middle East, especially during times of turmoil.
Before making my own attempt to capture how it feels, I want to say a few words about the audience for whom these reflections are intended. The thoughts that follow are for people who are interested in and concerned about the situation in the Middle East but who have not benefited from the eye-opening experience from which I've just returned. Convincing people with already hardened views is not my intention.
Further, I wish to be clear about my own background: I have a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Although I was raised Catholic, our household was in many ways culturally Jewish and our Jewish heritage has always been important to my family. My siblings and I grew up cherishing the Passover Seder service that our family would host each year. And many of my birthdays -- falling on October 1 -- were spent not blowing out birthday cake candles, but attending High Holy Day services. For the Sittenfelds, Judaism is a central proxy for family and for community.
Above all, when thinking about current events in the Middle East, I wish to be thoughtful; to make sense of the facts even when they are complex and contradictory; and to ground my conclusions in a commitment to the shared humanity that binds all of us, even bitter foes.
A VIEW FROM THE GROUND
Before embarking on the trip, a number of people suggested to me that I was heading into a brainwashing session. They believed this would be the case because my hosts for the trip were diplomats from the Israeli government.
My hosts, of course, had their own strong convictions about the Israeli government's actions as well as the actions of their adversaries. But by any measure, what we saw and experienced on the trip was a diverse cross-section of people, places, and perspectives.
Our visits included Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Ashkelon, and Haifa; and we also spent significant time in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, visited the first planned Palestinian city of Rawabi, and came as close to the border of Gaza -- within a few kilometers -- as was allowed due to the threat of mortar fire.
Those we met with covered a spectrum from top Israel national security advisers to Palestinian activists who have lost family members at the hands of Israeli Defense Forces.
We heard views ranging from pro-settlement hardliners to pro-peace moderates who prefer a two state solution.
A smattering of thought-provoking quotes which I scribbled from the various people we met include the following:
"The only constant in the Middle East is instability."
"Any time you see a national border that's a straight line, there are probably going to be problems. It means it's artificial."
"Never trade land for peace."
"Be wary of what's often behind a smile."
"If you don't tend to the Middle East, it comes back to bite you in tender places."
"It takes strength to practice non-violence. Any coward can fire a gun or launch a rocket."
I observed an important tension in the Middle East between an obsession with politics and an unexpected calmness in the face of political tumult.
"What's the appropriate response from Israel to Hamas firing rockets?"..."Will Iran become armed with nuclear capability?"..."What are the chances for peace in the Middle East?"
These kinds of questions are regularly in people's minds and in their conversations.
In the Middle East, life is politics and politics is life.
And yet, even with this pre-occupation, as rockets are launched into Israel and the ominous sound of warning sirens fill the air, life continues largely as normal. Cars continue to drive down the road. Couples go out for dinner. Children play in parks.
When the most recent ceasefire agreement broke down and Hamas again began firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, our group was simply told that when we hear warning sirens to lay on the ground and cover our heads with our hands. Beyond that, we carried on as normal.
One evening, when we heard the sirens in Jerusalem, as soon as they stopped, people resumed their conversations, picked up what they were previously doing, and continued on relatively unshaken.
It's a reality far removed from the relative tranquility that most Americans are used to. Their normal is simply not our normal. Their normal is volatility. Their normal is complexity.
But in the face of complexity, awareness is all the more important, especially for Americans whose collective opinion will help inform how the U.S. Government is, or is not, involved in the region moving into the future.
SO, WHO'S RIGHT -- AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In the current conflict, I believe that framing the situation as Israel versus the Palestinians is neither fair nor accurate. This conflict is Israel versus Hamas, which is officially recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, as well as by the United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, Australia, and most Western nations.
When thinking about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into dense Israeli cities with the intent to kill innocent women and children, I encourage my fellow Americans to think about what response would they want if terrorists fired a few rockets, let alone thousands, toward their home community -- small towns and large cities alike.
Security is essential, and the right of a democracy to defend itself and its people is paramount.
Only through the effectiveness and sophistication of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system has incalculable damage to Israel's people and infrastructure been avoided. The United States' continuing support for Israel's ability to defend itself against terrorists is critical.
And what about the casualties of innocent Palestinians during the conflict? It is tragic and heartbreaking. No innocent people -- especially children -- deserve to die.
The reality is, if Israel wanted to inflict widespread damage on Gaza, the military might is there to do so. Very clearly, that is not the goal. Instead, the goal is to be as targeted as possible in eliminating terrorists as a means of self-defense. This objective is made extraordinarily challenging by Hamas' documented tactic of using innocent men, women, and children as human-shields: launching rockets from residential neighborhoods and hospitals, and preventing civilians from fleeing even after Israel warns of pending strikes. Indeed, Hamas' practices of firing on civilian populations and firing from civilian populations are both war crimes.
What's hard to understand is the misdirected outrage from factions of the international community who decry Israel's methods of defending itself. Israel exists as a flourishing democracy, embracing life, drawing on its diversity, and promoting civil liberties, while at the same time, its closest neighbors are some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Beyond Hamas' terror, in Syria, under the rule of Assad, more than 170,000 people have been killed in recent years. In Iran, gays are punished by death and 9-year-old girls are entered into legal marriages. Given all of this, what's really motivating those whose first impulse when sizing up foreign affairs is to villainize Israel and apply a clear double standard to its desire for self-defense?
The most important question, of course, is how will a resolution be achieved in the current conflict? Alongside an agreement that ensures Israeli security and acknowledges the unique reality of the neighborhood in which it's located, a long-term focus certainly needs to be on economic empowerment for the Palestinian people.
Radical terrorists are not representative of the majority of the Palestinian people who want the same things that all people want: safety, access to education, the ability to provide for their families, and the basic opportunity to pursue a meaningful life.
In one new residential development I that visited in the West Bank, a forward-looking Palestinian man involved with the project and who has done business around the world told me, "Here, we're building stability, not hate, and creating jobs, not missiles."
That's the spirit of a viable future: choosing creation over destruction, working toward prosperity above conflict.
BRINGING IT HOME
Spending time in the Middle East with a delegation from around the globe inevitably caused me to reflect on the United States' unique role in the world.
Because we still have the world's biggest economy, and because we still have the world's greatest military might, we're constantly faced with the question and the choice of what responsibility comes with that power?
Two concluding thoughts:
First, the United States must continue to lead in the world, using our unique position to help more people achieve more freedom, greater economic empowerment, and fewer violations of their human rights. If we abdicate this responsibility, who will fill the vacuum?
Second, to provide strength internationally, we must first meet our own internal needs: addressing the domestic issues of poverty, lack of educational equity, wage stagnation, and income inequality isn't simply the right thing to do. It also enables the prosperity to ensure our own national security and our ability to aid those who, like us, wish to live their lives free from fear and able to pursue their own dreams.
In once again making the American Dream real at home, it can also be our greatest export -- for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for a planet at peace.