Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an Encounter trip to East Jerusalem. A little background: Encounter is an organization that brings North American Jewish leaders to Palestinian areas, with the goal of exposing members of the Jewish community to Palestinian perspectives and narratives. It is not meant to be a dialogue group, but rather a chance to hear Palestinian voices on the conflict, and reflect on them as Jews.
This was my first Encounter trip, and I went in with a fair amount of apprehension. I have many friends who have gone on Encounter trips before, and they’ve come back almost traumatized. They say that they’ve heard things about Israel that make them “hate” Israel, and they leave having changed their views on the conflict entirely, sympathizing with the Palestinians as never before. Personally, I wasn’t going with the intent of changing my views, but rather to expose myself to a new perspective, and to gain new information to incorporate into my teaching and writing. And, on a personal level, I chose to go on the East Jerusalem trip because as an Israeli citizen, I’m not able to go on many of Encounter’s trips, which go into Area A, and because I live here in Jerusalem, and realized that since I’ve moved here, I haven’t been to this part of the city.
The evening began with a introductions to the group, which had a huge range of ages and affiliations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were several people like me (American/Israelis) there for the evening, because I think that we’re one of the most important demographics in this arena – people who are deeply connected to the North American Jewish community, but live here on the ground in Israel, as Israelis. We all had the chance to share the questions that we were coming in with, and as always in groups like this, I was fascinated by everyone else’s questions. As an educator, I love hearing where other people are coming from, and what they’re hoping to get out of various Israel experiences.
As we began our walking tour from West Jerusalem to East, I was struck by how short the tour was. We walked along the outside of the Old City walls, a place that I walk multiple times a week, and simply kept going. There was no physical barrier, but I definitely felt myself crossing over, as we went passed the imaginary line that separates East and West, and that usually serves as the turnaround point for me when I run. As we walked along, stopping along the way to hear about different buildings that we were passing and their significance, everything felt (at least to me) very uncontroversial. I was gearing up to have my views challenged, and instead was hearing about East Jerusalem schools – interesting, but not upsetting.
Things took on a new significance as we continued our walk, heading to Salah al Din Street. It was described to us as the main commercial hub of East Jerusalem, and it looked totally foreign to me – somewhere I’d never been, never seen. When we got to our destination, the Educational Bookshop, I decided to “check in” to show my followers where I was. As the map came up, I realized that while I was a world away from my apartment, in a Palestinian area, I recognized all of the street names around me, and in reality was merely blocks from my home, and my Jerusalem’s own commercial hub, Ben Yehuda Street.
It struck me as unthinkably sad that this is the situation here in this city, that we live so close and don’t know each other, don’t see each other. It’s not like in other parts of the country where there are physical separations between Jews and Arabs. There’s literally nothing stopping me from going to Salah al Din, just as there’s nothing stopping any of our speakers from coming to Ben Yehuda Street, and we don’t do it. This was addressed by the panel of Palestinian speakers that spoke to our group, and they spoke about feeling uncomfortable speaking Arabic in West Jerusalem, or worried about being harassed in many areas of the city. All I could think was that I felt the same way in certain areas of the city, both in East Jerusalem and in haredi areas of the city.
I’m not going to go into every fact that I learned over the course of the evening, although there were many, and there’s so much more that I now want to delve into. Instead, I want to focus on my main takeaway of the evening. One woman, a mother and a professional who lives in Beit Hanina, spoke about being afraid that Jews would move into her area, and not liking it when Jewish Israelis come to her community in search of good hummus or kanafeh. In her words, “we’ve become the hummus-makers.” There’s some truth to this, and it’s something that I’ve mainly thought about in relation to Abu Gosh, an Israeli Arab town near Jerusalem that many know only as the place with the good hummus. How does it feel for residents to be reduced to this?
Still, my main takeaway was that Western sensibilities are not in line with the situation on the ground here in this city. While many North Americans picture peace as Arab and Jew living side by side, according to our speakers, that’s not what they want. They don’t want to be in mixed neighborhoods, but rather to be able to live separately. In North America, we understand segregation and separation as bad, but here in Jerusalem, it may be the most viable option for a lasting solution.
So, I’ve told this story, but where does the Zionism come in?
I came into the evening looking for new voices, wanting to understand on a deeper level my neighbors in this complicated city. As a committed Zionist and Israeli, I didn’t leave with any new doubts about Israel, but rather sadness for how hopeless the road to peace seems at times. Sometime it’s hard to hear these things, and to realize how hard achieving a true and lasting peace will be. But to be a modern Zionist is to believe in miracles, but also to be realistic. Zionism is about creating Israeli society, shaping it into what we want it to be, and the voices of Jerusalem Palestinians are a part of that society, for better or worse. Their voices should be heard, and taken into account, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear them. Zionists don’t need to be afraid of hearing the perspective of the other side. It’s not a scary as I thought it would be, as I came in with my knowledge and perspective, and came away with more, not less. None of my connection to Israel or Zionism was taken away, but instead I gained a greater understanding of the challenges facing us, and how we need to move forward.