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To Wrestle With

Opinion | February 20, 2018

“Learn it! Live it! Love it!” This slogan guided my summer abroad in 2014 as a student at Alexander Muss High School in Hod HaSharon, Israel. The content of our course of study spanned from the Jewish roots in the biblical era through the global diaspora and into modern Israeli history. Our formal learning was accompanied by classroom discussions about historical sites followed by field trips to experience those sites firsthand. This model allowed us to engage with over 4,000 years of history. Seemingly, there was no limit, timeline, or boundary to our learning.

At the beginning of class three weeks into the program, a loud noise erupted. It was not until a silence swept over the room that I realized it was a siren. Quickly, we shuffled out of the classroom and into a bomb shelter.

For the subsequent three weeks, our field trips were replaced with trips to this shelter. The four concrete walls—once used only for sound-proofing the music room—became tools to protect us from missiles and mortar shells. This was the first instance in which our learning was confined, yet our teachers still capitalized on this time. With the help of prayer, connections to the past camouflaged our present fear: hymns of “how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity,” aided by guitar, echoed loudly.

Every visit to the shelter lent to our realization of just how complicated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, particularly this phase which would become known as Operation Protective Edge. We soon learned that after the kidnapping and eventual death of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, 2014 by a member of Hamas, Jewish extremists kidnapped and burned alive a Palestinian teen on July 2—the day the three killed Israelis were buried.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that “Hamas will pay a heavy price…” for the Israeli lives taken. As a result, Operation Brother’s Keeper deployed the Israeli Defense Force into an investigation of the abduction. This Operation morphed into “Protective Edge” in early July, as Israel began conducting air strikes aimed at stopping rocket fire originating in Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip. The next stage was characterized by the ushering in of Israeli soldiers into the Gaza Strip for ground invasion. By the end of the Operation on August 26, over 2,200 Palestinians and 65 Israelis had lost their lives.

A couple weeks into the conflict, I spent Shabbat with David Raz, a family friend I’d met on a previous trip to Israel. He welcomed me into his home in a fervent state; two of his three sons were called up from reserves of the Israeli Defense Forces and preparing for service when I arrived. The fractured phrases I could catch of the informal family discussion over dinner preparations clued me into the realities on the ground, including mentions of the Gaza Strip as Raz’s son’s destination and the concrete tunnels as the Defense Force’s target. As I was merely a guest, I detected an intentional distancing from the son—the intel he had was not for me to hear.

As the Operation progressed, our trips to the shelter transitioned from surprise to routine, and distanced us from the lives of people represented by these numbers and figures. We could not quite understand the alterations of everyday life of Israelis and Palestinians that was happening beyond our walls. Yet, as foreign students, we understood that the disproportionate Palestinian death toll was due to Israel’s massive advantage in financial and military resources, particularly of the Iron Dome air defense system.

During every bus ride on our field trips, our teacher read the newspaper to inform us of the happenings of the State. And as our ability to travel safely around the country dwindled, I looked forward to these bursts of information as they shed light onto the political situation unfolding before us. After arriving back to campus from a trip in the thick of the Operation, my mom called with a list of possible flights home; she said that she did not want me in a “war zone.” The difference between her vision of the danger around me and my own experience only widened as she continued to be fed ideas from American media that disproportionately represented one side of this struggle.

I was thinking through my mother’s perceptions of my surroundings based on the conservative narratives of Israeli media. For the first time in my 16 years of Jewish education, I realized the void in this learning: my miseducation manifested in the information purposefully concealed from me. The dissonance between my lived experience and the media portrayal of this situation evidenced the impact that media has on perception, and therefore, action. While I had the privilege of leaving, this violence has been, is, and will continue to be the reality for Israelis and Palestinians, and to go home meant to take advantage of the safety in distance.

Traveling and experiential learning programs are exhaustive of both time and money. As a White American woman, I rarely rely on a set of concrete walls to ease worries of personal safety.  At the same time, this experience provided me with the opportunity to search for truth and begin to question my location in navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I requested that Palestinian voices be brought into our classroom. Why couldn’t we, as Jewish American students, access Palestinian media sources as well to contextualize the lives being lost at the expense of this war? These perspectives existed all along, but the Palestinian narratives remained suppressed.

In choosing to stay, I committed to learning more of the truth and felt the obligation to do so. The partial picture reported to Americans, and even embedded in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, perpetuates divisiveness. The invisibility of other narratives allows Israel to justify the subordination of Palestinians and warrants Palestinians to retaliate against the occupation and settlement of their land. Therefore, the cycle of discord sustains itself in the region.

Curriculum is intentional, and what isn’t included in it is even more so. Part of navigating education is recognizing and acting on those gaps, and it shouldn’t take a siren or a shelter to see the slanted qualities in presented facts and figures.

That summer continues to sit with me, nearly five years later. It informs my continued ties to Israel based on identity and my obligation to lift up the voices of Palestinians. My Jewish education now roots itself in formulating questions out of answers, and from that identity, my questions will persist. My critical analysis will escalate. My inherent commitment to the stability and justice of both Israel and Palestine will too. Just as the translation of the word Israel implies, I have and will continue “to wrestle with” Israel—and proudly so.