Searching for Coexistence


Thousands of Palestinians were displaced from Susya on the West Bank due to the 1948 War of Independence. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SHAINA OPPENHEIMER)


The other day I was sitting on the bus, headphones in, lost in the soulful melodies of Amy Winehouse. It took me a while to realize that the man sitting next to me was praying. His frock coat and top hat moved with the subtle sway of his spine while he read out of his siddur. Here I was listening to an electric jazz homage to drugs, sex, alcohol and addiction, and just a foot away from me someone was reading the word of God.

One of the most interesting parts about living in Jerusalem during my semester abroad is the juxtaposition between the ancient customs and modern day life. While Israel is an extremely progressive country, it must also respect the customs of the ultra-Orthodox. Beyond this tense struggle to find balance is the even more tense struggle for coexistence between Jews and Palestinians.  

A few weeks ago, I went on a human rights trip to the West Bank. We visited two Palestinian villages: Susya and Umm el Hiran/Atir. We met people who lived in the villages and listened to their stories, which were translated from Arabic to Hebrew, then Hebrew to English. I was aware of the displacement of thousands of Palestinians from the 1948 War of Independence, as I was taught, or as Palestinians call it, the Nakba, which translates to “disaster” or “catastrophe.” I was also vaguely aware of the ongoing displacement of Bedouin villages. However, putting a face to this suffering served as a reality check.

I was first struck by the festering smell of animals, trash and sewage. Because these villages are unrecognized by the government, they are ineligible for municipal services such as sanitation, water and electricity, not to mention proper health care, schools and law enforcement. Further, they lack infrastructure, living in shanty townships that face the constant threat of demolition and resettlement by the Israeli government.

Despite this hard to swallow reality, the people showed much benevolence towards us—kids no older than six walked around with a tray of tea for everyone. Although you could see the sorrow in their eyes, they did not speak with anger or hatred. Before heading back to Israel, one of the village leaders spoke about wanting a sense of security. He explained how he wanted peace for his family, his people and the land. He didn’t want to have to live in constant fear of being removed from his home. He concluded, “I’m glad my kids can see you here, caring about our situation. I do not want to teach them how to hate.”

On the drive back, I tried to digest everything I had seen that day. Growing up in a very Zionistic family in which Israel could do no wrong, it was hard for me to sort through my opinion. How could the country I love so much, built on the idea of providing a home for a people who have endured much trauma, go on to displace so many people and inflict trauma onto others?

Flashing lights soon called my attention out the window. I saw soldiers and army cars everywhere. People on the bus started looking on the news to see what was going on. We were caught in the aftermath of an attempted stabbing at a checkpoint at the Gush Etzion Junction, southwest of Bethlehem. I watched the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) clean up the scene where they shot and killed a 20-year-old terrorist who attempted to stab a soldier. Our car sat in front of the scene for about 30 minutes. On the way out, I saw a soldier standing in front of a barrier, his sniper pointed straight forward at a man kneeling with his hands behind his back and his head buried between his knees. I still don’t know if that man being detained had something to do with the attack.

I’ve never had a clear opinion on the conflict, but the more time I spend in Israel, the more I understand the complexity of the matter. Although my trip to the West Bank was a lot to take in, at the end of the day, my Jewish privilege brought me back to my nice apartment, to eat a nice meal and sleep in my nice bed. That isn’t to say indifference should keep me from taking action, nor is it to say that I will devote my life to human rights efforts in the West Bank and pat myself on the back for being the self-criticizing Jew. The contrariety of visiting the villages, hearing people’s stories and hopes for peace and seeing the terrorist attack, just one of an ongoing series, put me between a rock and a hard place, to say the least. It would be much easier if I could stand on one side and point my finger at those in the wrong.

It’s one thing to read about these things on the news, but to put a face to these problems and see them with your own eyes is very disheartening. Trying to have a Jewish state comes with many internal and external problems. The coexistence amongst the religious and the secular within Israel, and between the Israelis and Palestinians, seems farther away than ever. But if the idea is to preserve communities, the holiness of certain sites and religious customs, imparting trauma is certainly no way of accomplishing anything. Resorting to violence and indifference seems sacrilegious to me. After all the progress we’ve made throughout history, are we not better than this? My heart yearns for the suffering this conflict has brought to both sides. Why is it that conflict over religion and territory causes us to carry out the most inhumane acts? After all, isn’t religion about acceptance, love and forgiveness? I’m not a religious person, but the optimist in me would like to think that these values should eventually save us from our mutual destruction. These values that have been carried out for thousands of years stand at the base of religions people devote their lives to must contain something more.

Every evening I open my window and listen to the echos of the call to prayer coming from the Dome of the Rock. It reminds me that while Israel is a Jewish state, it can be a state of coexistence amongst a diverse community where the needs of all people are recognized. Something about it is so beautiful, so soothing, and it gives me hope for a day where we can live in peace.