Monday, January 9, 2012

A Light Unto the Nations

This post is by Daniel and Leah

“I love Israel not for what it is, but what it could be.” –Rabbi David Hartman

Before we came to Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict was a theoretical, political issue that we experienced primarily through the lenses of the Jewish community and world media. Since arriving in Israel, the conflict has become a tangible part of our daily lives, which has much less to do with politics and much more to do with the human stories on the ground. We’ve learned that the conflict is not a story of two competing sides, but rather a complex, dynamic situation with many layers, individual voices, and unfolding narratives. In this way, trying to understand the conflict is like looking through a kaleidoscope: every time you look at it from a new angle, the colors move and a different picture emerges. No one angle can show the complete picture. The best we can do is try and see as many angles as possible to uncover a more whole image of a conflict that’s constantly in motion.

Last week, we set out to add a new angle to our understanding of the conflict. We went on a two-day Encounter trip to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians and look through the kaleidoscope with their eyes. It would be impossible and overwhelming to encapsulate our whole trip in one blog post, so we’ve decided to share one encounter that was particularly eye-opening and challenging.


On the first day of our trip, we went on a tour of the Israeli West Bank barrier (also known as the Security Fence, the Separation Wall, and many other politically charged terms—as we’ve said many times before, everything here is complicated, even naming a wall). Following the violence of the second intifada, the Israeli government erected the barrier as a means of preventing would-be terrorists from crossing into Israel-proper from the West Bank. Since that time, suicide bombings in Israel have been prevented almost entirely. Yet the barrier remains highly controversial and politically charged. Critics of the barrier point to its system of checkpoints as a means of restricting the free movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank and greater Israel. Additionally, critics claim that the barrier is Israel’s attempt to set the borders between Israel and any possible future Palestinian state. Over the course of our two days in Bethlehem, not one Palestinian we spoke to questioned Israel’s right to secure its borders. Their problem is that, from their perspective, the placement of the barrier has less to do with security and more to do with Israel expanding its borders: 85% of the barrier lies within the pre-1967 green line. The barrier is more than twice as long as the ’67 border, and stretches well into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlements.
Graffiti on the barrier

In Bethlehem, the Palestinian side of the barrier is covered with colorful political graffiti with messages like: “Love wins,” “This wall may take care of the present, but it has no future,” and “Refuse to be enemies.” It is worth noting that most of the graffiti is done in English by the international community in solidarity of the Palestinian people.

The barrier continues to be constructed and its location is hotly disputed. In the village of al-Walaja, we met a farmer named Omar. Al-Walaja is wedged between the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Gush Etzion. Omar’s house and farming property lie on the edge of the village, outside the proposed route of the barrier. For several years the Israeli government has tried to convince Omar to sell his property so the barrier can be constructed as planned. He refuses to leave the home his father built and his children grew up in. Instead of rerouting the barrier to include Omar’s property, the state of Israel is spending 5.8 million shekels (approx. 1.5 million dollars) to surround Omar’s home with an electric fence and build a tunnel to connect his house to the village. The barrier will dramatically restrict his access to his farmland. Whereas he once had 500 olive trees, he will soon have access to only 10.

Omar and the tunnel that's being
constructed from his house to the village
Critics of the barrier point to cases such as Omar’s to argue that the placement of the barrier has less to do with security and more to do with land grabbing. (It should be noted that on more than one occasion, the Israeli Supreme Court has overturned the placement of the barrier, rerouting its construction.) Omar’s situation could easily be solved by rerouting the barrier to the valley between al-Walaja and Gilo. By placing the barrier on the proposed site, Israel forcibly stops future expansion of al-Walaja and allows for potential growth of Gilo and other settlements. While Israel rigorously controls settlement construction, it is essential to note that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. The status of the settlements will be a major point of negotiation in all future peace talks.

For us, Omar’s story was the most challenging encounter of the trip: the solution of moving the barrier is painfully obvious in the face of the absurd inconvenience and outrageous cost of building a tunnel, not to mention the fact that Omar and his family will be fenced in. We’ve been struggling with the injustice of this situation and its implications for Israel and its policy regarding the barrier. The Ministry of Defense might argue that encapsulating this corner of al-Walaja would prevent militants from shooting across the valley into Gilo. However, at present there’s no barrier and no violence.

Omar’s is not the only disheartening case we saw on our brief trip. While it is impossible to negate that the barrier has increased Israel’s security, it is impossible to ignore that it has done so to the detriment of the Palestinian people.


We love Israel because it’s a place where a Jew can be a Jew. We love Israel because here our people and our tradition were born. We love Israel because its very existence engenders important Jewish conversations. One of those conversations must be an honest dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such dialogue must include an attempt to understand the Palestinian narrative. There are multiple realities on the ground and sometimes they just don’t reconcile. And that’s okay. But it’s our responsibility to strive for a more complete picture. And often the more complete picture is more complicated. And that’s okay too.

We can no longer allow ourselves to merely dream of what Israel could be. Rather we must invest ourselves in making that dream a reality. It requires the hard work of facing the facts on the ground. It requires us to open our eyes to the things that need changing. It requires us to look into the kaleidoscope and be brave enough to turn the wheel, to see another angle, to step into someone else’s reality.

We believe in an Israel that can be “a light unto the nations.” But before we can do so, we must shine a light on our own dark places. We can no longer be afraid of our shadows.

We’ve talked in this blog post about complexifying our understanding of Israel. We’re both taking a class on the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and have made plans to tour Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank, spend Shabbat with a Haredi family, meet with Bedouins in the Negev, and tour the Jewish towns in the south that suffer from rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. If you have suggestions for other trips, books, news sources, or organizations we might want to explore, please send them our way!


  1. Amen.

    You know, that is all we can ask for - not for people to accept our exact political outlook or understanding of the conflict, not for them to be active like us, vote like us, donate like us or spam their facebook friends like us. All we can really ask is for people to try and understand this reality as something that is more complicated than they might have thought, and then to invite them to have an honest discussion on the conflict's implications.

    Question is: How do we get more people on similar trips?

  2. Thank you for sharing this story! It shows us the reality of the other side - we are continually bombarded with stories about how Israel strives to treat people fairly - this shows us that in the effort to "maintain and secure peace" human beings and their lives are often the casualty. Surely we can be more empathetic - think outside the box and find solutions that don't take such a toll on a human being's lifestyle - and what about "Parnassah?" That has to apply to how we treat our neighbors too!