Trip to Israel Complicates Understanding of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

March 31, 2011

Qumran Caves

In March, Aislinn Betancourt (third from right) visited the Qumran caves as part of a field study to Israel.

I read the international section of The New York Times, and I follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on CNN. I watch documentaries that speak to people in, and show footage of, cities in Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.

That being said, I found myself half embarrassed and half deceived when I landed at the airport in Tel Aviv—beautiful, modern, and exceptionally efficient—expecting to find a run-down, desert land city swarming with Israeli soldiers ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. I expected to be immediately labeled an outsider, glared down at every corner and objectified by the male gaze. Instead, I paraded through the streets feeling more comfortable and at home than I do in Winter Park, Fla.

As one of 8 students, I spent bring break in the Promised Land, as part of Professor of Religious Studies Yudit Greenberg’s field study, Jerusalem: History, Politics, and Religion. Also a student in her seminar on Jerusalem, I have spent the semester learning about the cultural, political and religious factors that make Jerusalem the spiritual center of the world and how Israeli Jews and Arabs were not only encountering, but also contributing to, these factors. There in Israel, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—and many a city, settlement, and sacred site in between—I discovered new experiences and a more complicated version of truth.

On that first evening in Tel Aviv, we took a stroll to the nearby port town of Jaffa, toured the Arab quarter and wandered down the cobble stone streets of the artsy district. We saw display upon display of unique street art lining the path to Jaffa, and, thanks to the gracious merchants of the Arab quarter, we tasted the best sweets, tea, pudding and produce, without spending a single shekel! People were so genuinely kind in every part of the city and I got the sense throughout the rest of Israel that Israelis—both Jew and Arab alike—truly relished life and made it their personal responsibility that I, along with my group, relish it along with them.

This joie de vivre springs from two religions based in peace and love. The most rewarding part of the trip consisted of two visits with two very special gentlemen who spoke of this love and eternal oneness, as well as the hope of peace in a region that has been riddled with conflict for years.

The first of these, a Sufi Master who fled his home in Jerusalem after he and his family were violently attacked by Muslim extremists, runs a Sufi Center off the side of his modest apartment in the heart of Nazareth where Sufi Muslims come to learn and pray. “If your heart can include the Creator, then it must include His creations,” he said to us. “God makes nations, races and religions so that we [the human race] can draw from these differences to create great things, to know God better through the diversity of His creations.”

In our meeting with Moshe Genesh, a Jewish mystic who lives a Bedouin life with his wife and two daughters in a tent off the side of a mountain, echoed the Sufi Master’s belief in the oneness of humanity. “You must learn to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’,” he said. “People are so focused on the little differences that they forget to ‘zoom out’ to look at the Big Picture [God]. Everyone is in the Big Picture.”

In fact, both of them, despite practicing different faiths, had quite a lot of points in common—a testament, I believe, to the universalism of truth, the power of and need for love, and the possibility of finding love for all humanity through God. Speaking with these men was like catching a small glimpse of what God was like—simple and loving, with a great sense of humor—and a little taste of what heaven might be—a humble apartment or a tent off the side of the mountain where everyone agreed that love was the answer.

We spent the last day in Israel learning about peace from two young Palestinian men Nour and Amro, who gave us the tour of modern-day Bethlehem, located in the West Bank. The media portrays Palestinians as either violent terrorists to be condemned and hated or uneducated common folk to be pitied and prayed for. I saw neither terrorists nor commoners in Nour and Amro. Rather, I saw two young men who, deeply affected by the conflict at hand, were taking real steps in promoting dialogue and furthering their education to spread a message of reconciliation and peace throughout Israel and Palestine. An organized, peaceful platform for Palestine has been lacking in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for several years, but I felt in my conversations with Nour and Amro a great deal of hope for a new generation of strong, well-educated, Palestinian peace-makers.

Going into this trip, I had a very clear-cut idea of what I would learn. I’d study religious and secular opinions of the infamous Israeli-Palestinian land dispute, along with religious and secular views of war and peace. After all this studying, I’d come up with a general rule of peace that could apply not only to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to religious conflicts worldwide. However, things didn’t end as clear-cut as I’d planned.

Just hours before we boarded our plane home, a terrorist attack that took the lives of an entire family of Jewish settlers blurred the beautiful picture of Israel I had painted over the past week. It was a difficult moment for me because for quite some time I have stood in solid opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The wall, the prejudices, the check points—they were all so humiliating and degrading. That attack shook more than just the land and buildings. For the first time, I was torn over my stance on the matter. The conflict was no longer as clear cut as I had made it out to be. Now, I clearly saw the losses, fears and cries—from both sides.

I left Jerusalem about as conflicted as I have ever been concerning the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute. I was disheartened that I most certainly did not find a way to abolish religious tensions worldwide. However (and this is an important however) I did leave Israel—to the credit of its many places, faces and customs—with an in-depth understanding of the challenges that religious and ethnic pluralism face, as well insight into future strategies to achieve peaceful coexistence and cooperation among different peoples and faiths.

I left Jerusalem—the epicenter of all I have learned and seek to learn—with change on my mind, hope in my heart and passion in my veins. And as someone who has been there, experienced the joys and losses of that special land, I no longer have the choice to ignore it.

Contributed by Aislinn Betancourt (Class of 2012)

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