You are special. You could be one of the nation’s next leaders. You’re making a huge difference on your college campus. You don’t just care about issues; you act when you see something isn’t right.
The woman telling you this probably says the same things to all the students she works with. You’re an adult. Don’t fall for this lame flattery that anyone with a pen could poke a hole through.
Don’t pass up the chance to hear both sides of this historic conflict! Don’t you want an adventure? Did you know the drinking age is 18?
When she starts to chip away at you with her questions, and you start running out of reasons to refuse her advances, keep your feet on the ground. She’ll say anything to get you to sign-up for the Fact Finders Mission to Israel - a guided trip designed to convince student activists to avoid the BDS movement. It’s her job.
Even if all her compliments mean nothing to you (they will mean something; you’ve never fully immunized yourself against praise from authority figures), and even if you know the trip is designed to convince you of Israel’s unambiguous righteousness, you must accept her invitation. You have plenty of flaws, but you’re not an idiot. When someone offers you a free trip to somewhere exciting and maybe a little dangerous, you say yes.
Don’t you want to be brave, interesting, and spontaneous? Don’t you have something to prove?
Call your parents once you’ve made your decision. Tell them you’re going in two months. You’ll be gone most of Winter Break, but you’ll be back for Christmas.
Don’t ask for permission.
Try to sleep off the nervousness that creeps in when you board the plane. You’ll be fine in a foreign country without anyone who knows anything about you beyond your first and last name (which they’ll only know from the obnoxious lanyard you’re required to wear the entire time).
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It’s only 10 days.
Once you touch down in Tel Aviv, the blur begins. You’ll spend two days at a kibbutz near the Golan Heights in a tiny room with three tall, thin blondes who you can only imagine were the prom queens, homecoming queens, and snowball princesses at the mid-Michigan high schools of their cornfield-laden, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small towns.
They’ve never met, but they’ll speak the same language. The room will be overtaken by giggles and shrieks as they swipe through dating apps. It’s not their fault. You missed your chance to figure out how to befriend girls like this. Sometime in your early adolescence, it should’ve happened. Let yourself feel a little bit like a frizzy-haired alien as they effortlessly perform idealized femininity. It’s not their fault that they’re beautiful and effervescent, and you are…you.
Do your best to stay out of their way. You’re used to being an observer. It’s not voyeuristic if it’s instructional. Maybe you’ll learn to have fun.
The wake-up call comes at 5 a.m. the next morning, and it’s critical that you took your migraine medication the night before, because you won’t have any time to adjust to the light and noise before you’re piled into an open-air Jeep on the Syrian border with a gruff, ex-IDF special forces driver. He won’t speak much, but when he does, it’ll be to hit on your roommates, who will giggle some more and correct his English in cutesy, patronizing ways that he’ll play along with because they’re beautiful and 15 years younger than him.
Enjoy this part. Between the nervous flirting and rushing wind, you won’t have to come up with any small talk.
Think about how much it’ll scare your mom when you tell her that you drove right by undetonated landmines. You’ll say you were close enough to touch them, and you’ll get to relish in the fact that you’re telling the truth. When the driver points out an Al-Qaeda base just across the border, make a mental note to save that story for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’ll be worth it to get everyone’s horrified reactions at once.
The juxtaposition between this and the next location will be priceless. The woman – the one who convinced you to go on the trip – will announce that you’re going to a Christian holy site: the Primacy of Peter, where Jesus allegedly told his favorite apostle to build the first church.
The devout Catholics on the trip will cry when they see the Sea of Galilee for the first time. The evangelicals will roll their eyes at the nuns and monks who shush them when they make fun of said Catholics for lighting prayer candles. Though a Jewish organization sponsored the trip, most of your fellow travelers are Christian, and they’ll be able to smell the doubt and shame on you from a mile away. Leave everyone else so that you don’t feel any pressure to perform. Instead, you should stare at the pristine water and think about miracles and landmines and the Syrian Civil War and feel nothing.
You have permission to start feeling things again when you see the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. The tour guide will stand in the middle of the bus and tell you about the “fence” and how the purpose of the “fence” is to prevent Palestinian terrorism. Not all Palestinians are terrorists, she’ll say, but it’s better to be prepared for the ones who are.
Don’t worry. In the years that follow, the nightmares you’ll get of being trapped in Ramallah, surrounded by the wall and without your passport, will become less frequent.
You’ll get to leave.
Later on, when you arrive at the Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank, there will be an old woman with hands just like your great-grandmother’s. If you don’t remember your great-grandmother’s hands, you’ll still recognize the redness and rawness right away. After she feeds your group, she’ll wash the fleet of dishes in icy water that she cannot waste. Access to water in the West Bank is limited.
Things aren’t so bad here, your tour guide will say. She saw a woman with braces texting on a cellphone as you entered the dilapidated apartment. You can’t have braces and a cellphone and be oppressed. People around you will laugh. The woman hosting you all – the daughter of the old woman you noticed before – will turn her lips into a tight smile. She can’t say anything. You’ve already met her special needs son. They need whatever money the tour company is paying them to serve you.
Try as much as you can to feel nothing again.
You will continue to think of your great-grandmother until your head aches, and you will offer to do the dishes, because if you don’t, you will burst.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ll have a conversation with this old woman. She doesn't speak English, and you don’t speak Arabic, but women communicate in their own language when there’s work to be done. You already know that.
The pink apron has frills sewn onto it. Smile back when the daughter hands it to you, then scrub pots and pans until your hands feel ready to bleed and until you’re grateful to feel such a rough sensation.
A man in your group will offer to help. His mother would be angry with him if he allowed others to clean up after him. You will warm to him right away. Get him an apron and smile when he puts it on. He’ll smile back. This is a good person.
You will not speak to him for the rest of the trip, but afterward, he will send you a friend request on Facebook. In this digital sphere, you will also avoid interaction.
When you leave the rickety apartment, you’ll step into the crossfire of a group of kids with nerf guns. When a member of your group is hit with a foam bullet, he’ll say, “Look, they’re already training their kids to kill us.” He and his friends will laugh, and you better make sure you don’t look shocked, or you’ll alienate yourself from everyone even more.
Don’t pretend that you’d speak up on behalf of those kids. Yes, you’re a student leader who says you’re committed to standing up for the oppressed when surrounded by people at school who agree with you, but come on, you know you’re not so brave in a crowd.
At the next hotel, you’ll have a new roommate to try to bond with. She’ll still be a tall, thin blond, because it’ll feel like everyone on this trip is but you, but you’ll be stuck in this room together with nothing to do but talk. The conversation will go well. You’ll tell her about the comment you heard at the refugee camp – that it’s been eating at you all day.
You must have misheard him, she’ll say. That’s her boyfriend, and he would never say something so offensive.
Don’t make the mistake of looking for connection with anyone on this trip again.
When you reach the outskirts of Bethlehem, the others will ask you to take their photos with the Banksy. Let them try out several poses.
When they offer to take yours, just tell them you’re not happy with your hair. It’ll be easier than telling the truth.
Remember when you were a child at the 9/11 Memorial, and you took photos of your friends smiling by the reflection pool? You used the same excuse.
Be sure to think about Tatooine – the planet from Star Wars – as mountains of sand rise up around your bus while you drive through the desert.
It will make you feel stupid that that’s the only comparison you’re able to make, but you’ve never been to a desert before. The vastness will overwhelm you.
Your tour guide will blast Israeli pop music over the stereo. The cheap headphones you brought won’t stand a chance. Relinquish any hope you have of tuning it out and save your phone battery.
Instead, use it to type in your address on a GPS app and see the number of miles between you and home. Alternate between watching the others dance in their seats and the look of the arid exterior outside your window.
Eventually the Israeli pop will stop, and your guide will play – and perform – “Baby Got Back.”
This woman is maybe 28 years-old, but you’ll feel like she’s much older than you until this point. When this moment comes, someone will pass a huge bag of Bamba – a beloved Israeli peanut butter puff snack – to you. Eat some and laugh. You won’t laugh enough in Israel.
Someone seated at the front of the bus (you will sit in the back) will inevitably play “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” by John Denver.
Give yourself some time to wonder why someone so talented would get into such an unstable aircraft.
The chorus will come, and the rest of your group will sing along. Don’t join in. Close your eyes. Force yourself to think about the trees in Michigan. You’re hungry for a beech or a paper birch or red oak.
Your grandfather loves this song. Remember singing with him as you headed north on I-75 when he and your grandmother took you to the Upper Peninsula during the summer vacations of your girlhood?
You are so far from home.
You’re the first person in your family to leave the continent.
You’re different. You’re special.
Those lies from the trip’s organizer have transitioned from benign, meaningless compliments to ironic cruelties.
What if you can’t get past this feeling? What if you go home and never leave again?
Save it for your therapist.
The Israeli tour guide will point out a children’s playground, and the bus driver will pull over to take a closer look. It’s jungle themed. There are tunnels made to look like snakes.
It’s a nice park. Your little brother would love to play there.
It doubles as a bomb shelter in case the Iron Dome can’t intercept a rocket shot off by Hamas in Gaza – where the residents can’t leave and have even less access to water and electricity than the people you met at the Aida Refugee Camp.
Get back on the bus. Watch everyone chat and sing along with the music again.
Picture little Israeli children practicing how to stay safe during a terrorist attack.
You’ll start to feel nauseous. Compose yourself. You don’t want to be known as the girl who puked in the Negev.
Think about your boyfriend, who was just in Hamburg, as Jerusalem comes into view. Right about now, you’ll start feeling like you made him up. You’ve never gone so long without talking to one another. When he was traveling, he saw where the Beatles stayed during their first tour, and got drunk with anarchists at a soccer game, and faked being Canadian to a group of actual Canadians just to see if he could get away with it.
Don’t think about him for too long. There will be so many other exhausting, bleak things to focus on in Jerusalem instead.
Where is G-d? You went all the way to Israel, surrounded yourself in the violent, conquering glory of your Roman Catholic heritage, and you still can’t find Him. You searched a cave in Bethlehem. Now walk the Via Dolorosa and place your hand in the spot they say Jesus rested with the cross. Peer into an empty tomb.
Like Moses, you’ll ask to see G-d’s face, and G-d’s answer won’t change for you.
But that woman’s hands will never leave your memory.
G-d showed you as much of Herself as she could.
In Machne Yehuda, even you – a terminal rule-follower – will get so drunk that the walls of the city start to ripple. It’s not illegal here, so convince yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong. The more you drink, the more you’ll believe it.
A bartender will tell you that you look 17. Turn your grimace into a smile. Your tour leader, who isn’t much older than you, will elbow you and tell you to enjoy it while it lasts. Roll your eyes.
After enough one-shekel shots, you’ll love everyone. Debate the hierarchy of Adam Sandler movies with everyone else. Exchange phone numbers with your original roommates, whose boyfriends you haven’t insulted. None of this social acceptance will be worth the hangover you have the next day.
When you walk out of DTW and get in your mom’s blue Ford Fusion, your five-year-old brother will jump out of his booster seat and pummel you with a tight hug. Be careful not to encourage this; your mom is annoyed that he unbuckled without asking.
He will have to ask what type of airplane brought you home. Tell him it was a 787, even if you don’t know for sure. Both of you still have a few more years to benefit from his ardent belief that you are the coolest and smartest person he knows.
When he asks you if you had a good time in – “Where did she go again, Mom? Oh right, Israel,” – brush the question aside and rummage through your backpack for the many treats you brought home for him.
Because he is a good boy, he will thank you right away. He will eat most of it as your mother tries to navigate through the airport traffic, and she will glare at you. For once, you won’t care.
Your brother will give you a conspiratorial smile, and you will want to hug and kiss him, but you won’t unbuckle your seatbelt. You’ll follow the rules. You won’t get in trouble.
When you see the red maple in front of your parents’ house, you can cry.
Just be quiet about it.
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