The View from Palestine: American Jewish Journeys into the West Bank

Three years ago I traveled from Jerusalem to Ramallah, in an Israeli public bus that left from Damascus Gate, and which my cousin tried until the final moments to convince me not to board. “They’ll slaughter you if they find out you’re a Jew,” he told me. Halfway through college, I had studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traveled in Israel, and heard the broad range of views that Israeli and American Jews hold. But I had never met a Palestinian.

Members of extend group standing on grassy field.

An Extend group meets with Bilal Tamimi, organizer of the weekly civil disobedience marches in Nabi Saleh. Sam Sussman on far right. Credit: Adomi Leshem.

It’s a common reality for American Jews. Ramallah is a charming city, with a thriving NGO sector, a plethora of chic bars and restaurants, and both Christian and Muslim historic sites. More than two million tourists visit Palestine every year, but few are American Jews. Neither Birthright-sponsored trips, nor the overwhelmingly majority of rabbinical and political delegations venture across the Green Line. Less than a tenth of Americans visiting Israel cross into Palestine; most are Christians visiting religious sites. Too many American Jewish leaders seem convinced that we can understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without ever talking to Palestinians.

Many seem convinced of something else, too: that if we visit Palestine and speak to the people who live there, we will somehow become alien from our own faith, culture, and commitments. After leading nearly fifty American Jewish college students on five delegations through the West Bank with Extend, a nonprofit organization I launched with a friend, Jon Emont, I have come to believe something different—that if we speak to Palestinians, we will not become estranged from our faith and culture, but instead begin to hear inflections of our own people’s aspirations.

On my first day in Ramallah, I joined Salwa Duaibis, a researcher at the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling, on a field trip northwest of the city. We drove by Palestinian communities and Israeli settlements, finally winding through the hilly roads of Asira al-Qibliya, to a house at the edge of the valley that separates the village from Yitzhar, an Israeli settlement. The valley between the two communities is a geographical illustration of less than neighborly relations: former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once described violence visited against Asira al-Qibliya by Yitzhar settlers as “a pogrom.” I had read about Yitzhar and Asira al-Qibliya, and worried how I would be greeted. As I entered the home, Ibrahim Makhlouf, the father, shook my hand. “We will share our story with you,” he said, “but only if you promise to tell Mr. Obama.”

For the next several hours, we listened to one another speak, in the type of difficult but vital conversation that Palestinians and Jews rarely have with one another. Ibrahim described how the land his family had farmed for generations had been taken by Yitzhar settlers when they first arrived in the mid-1980s. Khadra, his wife, described the violence the family is exposed to as the nearest house to the Israeli settlement, part of the settlers’ “price-tagging” strategy of using violence against Palestinian civilians to frighten the IDF out of policing settlers. Their youngest son, M.M., sixteen years old, described a weeklong ordeal in solitary confinement, part of three weeks he spent in Israeli detention, despite charges never being formally brought against him. He is one of 500 to 700 Palestinian children, some as young as twelve, who are processed in Israeli's military courts every year, which retain a shocking conviction rate of 99.7 percent, and are rampant with reports of physical violence against children. Hamad, their second-eldest son, was exasperated enough to leave his homeland: he shared his dreams of one day starting a business in the United States. I spoke about historic Jewish experiences of persecution, and my own experiences with anti-Semitic violence. I did my best to explain why criticisms of Israeli policies are so sensitive to so many Jews.

On the way back to Ramallah, I struggled to reconcile the Makhloufs’ daily life with the humanistic Judaism in which I was raised. I was angry at the tautological clichés that suggest Jews bear no responsibility for the intolerable human rights conditions under which families such as the Makhloufs suffer: that the IDF never uses more violence than is necessary; that it is only Palestinians, and never Israeli settlers, who use violence against civilians; and, most of all, that things are really not so bad for Palestinians who live under Israeli military control. I believed that the Jewish communities I have been a part of would find something deeply wrong in the stories I had heard.

This January 2015, Extend is leading its sixth tour of American Jewish millennials through the West Bank. Our programs are based on the simple belief that without understanding Palestinian perspectives, we are condemned to see the conflict as a matter of unequivocal good against unequivocal evil, instead of as a tragic cycle from which the overwhelmingly majority of Israelis and Palestinians want to escape. I am personally motivated by the belief that American Jewish conversation rarely grapples with the reality of Palestinian life under military occupation, and that those who either casually accept or willingly defend Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank are often unaware of the excruciating human rights deprivations that they condone.

Extend participants standing in front of a grassy knoll.

Extend participants meet with Iyad Burnat, political leader in Bilin. Credit: Sam Sussman.

Extend does not believe that the differences between Jews and Palestinians are trivial or transient, or that our five-day programs can somehow magically end more than a century of bloodshed. But we do believe that conversation has the power to create understanding, erode stereotypes, and ultimately lead to lasting peace––if all involved are willing to listen to the lived experiences of other human beings.

While our hearts may be partners in this journey, our brains often resist. In the past two decades, social psychologists have made remarkable insights about the ways our minds play tricks with evidence in emotionally charged contexts, such as ethnic conflicts. Because there is always too much information to process in a conflict as politically, religiously, and historically complex as that in Israel/Palestine, our minds must generate simpler narratives, which privilege certain information. Almost always, that information is partial to our preconceived views, and hostile to contradictory evidence. We see the best in ourselves and those who are like us, and the worst in those who are not. The chasm between different communities’ narratives of the same events can stop fruitful conversation before it ever starts.

For American Jews, it can be painful to slowly understand what the conflict looks like through Palestinian eyes. American Jews are tragically acquainted with the suffering endured by Israelis: we know too well about suicide bombings and kidnapped children, heinous murders and Hamas’s noxious rhetoric. But because we are far less familiar with Palestinian suffering, we often dismiss their claims as simple anti-Semitism.

This is an easy escape from a more complex reality; it is harder to consider how things appear from the other side. These differences in perspective challenge even the most sincere efforts in dialogue. In June 2014, during an Extend program in Bil’in, I watched two friends of mine, both gifted, well-intentioned young men, struggle through this mutual frustration. The Jewish man, Eli, became upset with the Palestinian, Iyad, for advocating a single democratic binational state. Iyad, genuinely taken aback, asked what alternative existed. Eli explained the liberal Zionist vision of a two-state solution. Iyad blinked. “Are there people who really believe in this?” he asked. “Because every Israeli government has built settlements since 1967.”

The simple fact that for many Palestinians, there is no Israel, no Zionism, and no future outside of the current one-state reality is one of many perspectives we must try to better understand. Because most American Jews have never seen a peaceful protest violently dispersed by the IDF, or a house demolished for political purposes, or a child arrested because of a parent’s political activities, or a family’s livelihood swept away by settlement expansion, it is too easy for us to dismiss these stories as exaggeration at best, or mere anti-Semitism at worst. For Palestinians, they are lived experiences. If we are uncomfortable with Palestinian criticism of these policies, we should feel all the more moral urgency to speak and organize against them.

Angry American Jewish reactions to these stories often leave Palestinians confused. Most Palestinians I know cannot fathom why Jewish institutions neglect to condemn settler violence regularly visited upon unarmed Palestinians but urge Palestinians to give up nonviolent tactics such as BDS—tactics through which Palestinians demonstrate their commitment to peace. Palestinians often ask me: what have you given up to demonstrate your commitment to peace? Not settlements. Not the violent crackdowns against peaceful Palestinian demonstrators. Not checkpoints between Palestinian communities. Not segregationist laws that exclude Palestinians from designated highways, city streets, or public buses. Not East Jerusalem. Not even the belief, one friend once said to me, that you have a magical monopoly on truth and justice, that Palestinians lives cannot possibly be worth trying to understand.

Amid these differences, it is easy to succumb to the cynicism that says dialogue holds no promise. Last summer in Bil’in, Iyad and Eli paused in conversation for a moment, considering each other’s views. Later, Iyad told me that he wants to improve his English to better understand American Jews, and Eli described the conversation as his most meaningful experience on the Extend trip. Their moment of silence was filled with the dim sound of hammering just over the separation barrier, in Modi’in Illit. Settlement construction had not been polite enough to pause for the men to reconcile their differences.

I hear the skepticism that holds conversation as feel-good and empty of consequences. It lurks beneath the surface of otherwise polite inquiries about Extend: “How do you measure impact?” The simple answer is that we must be not only listeners but also principled advocates: we must aspire to understand Israeli and Palestinian experiences more deeply, and to bring this understanding to bear on the numerous ways in which the American Jewish community influences the conflict. The way is being led by the dozens of Extend alum who have spoken against the unacceptable human rights situation in the region at synagogues, on campuses, with elected representatives in Washington, at media outlets such as the Huffington Post, and at the inspiring Open Hillel conference (Open Hillel founders Rachel Sandalow-Ash and Emily Unger are alumnae of our first program).

Two Extend participants holding hands with a girl.

Two Extend participants make friends with a girl in Bil’in. Credit: Sam Sussman.

Extend, like Open Hillel, is a small organization with no paid staff, and a bank account that looks strikingly like that of a college student. But we believe that we are part of a millennial Jewish movement that is changing our community’s long-standing belief that we can resolve this conflict by speaking only to ourselves. We are inspired by the young Jewish leaders who take it for granted that they should meet Palestinians when they travel to the region, and by the conversations they have when they do.

Ninety years ago, in “The Iron Wall,” Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued that Arab hunger had to be weighed against Jewish starvation. Today, Jews and Palestinians are both starving for peace. After twenty years, the Oslo Era is over. Another cycle of more brutal repression and more visceral resistance looms. Millennial Jewish leadership offers a different path. Both the uplifting turnout at Open Hillel's first conference and strong interest in more seriously engaging Palestinian perspectives through organizations such as Extend speak to a burgeoning movement in our generation of Jewish leaders. We recognize the moral urgency of ending the intolerable human rights situations faced by both Israelis and Palestinians––and we recognize that doing so will require uncomfortable, but ultimately transformative dialogue not only with those with whom we already share so much, but also with a people that so many of us have yet to meet.

(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)

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One thought on “The View from Palestine: American Jewish Journeys into the West Bank

  1. The people of Israel know better than American Jews coming in off the plane, telling them how to run their country, and then running back to the plane and flying home.

    You do not have to face the existential threat of Israelis, who are viewed as colonists and not rightful citizens of the Jewish homeland. Also, American Jews can visit the Palestinians, but should not get in the way of the Israeli government to manage the territories.

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