Steven Davidson / The Chronicle
Preparing to leave from Tel Aviv, I was nervous for the two months ahead. I had just finished participating in the Birthright program. After listening to the Israeli narrative of this land for two weeks, I was ready to see the other side that had been kept from me and other Jews for so long. Mentions of the West Bank were sparse during Birthright, and when it was discussed, the narrative seemed incomplete. I had loved my connection with the Land of Israel—the land of my origins. However, I was disturbed by the way people connected the Land of Israel with the State of Israel—the actions and policies of the current government—without true inner contemplation. Political doctrine was presented as fact.
Now I was going to the black part of the map.
I craved to see Palestine with my own eyes, but knew so little about the land. Before I went to teach English to Palestinians and work for an Nongovernmental organization in Hebron, I tried to research the Palestinian culture. But Google searches only yielded news clippings of terrorist attacks and violent clashes. All I had heard from Israelis about Palestinians was their supposed poor taste in clothing. As I crossed the Green Line to enter the West Bank, life in Palestine was a complete and anxious unknown.
The situation I discovered while living in Hebron in the West Bank for more than two months was shocking. Living there during times of peace (relatively speaking), a kidnapping and ensuing operation and ultimately war, I witnessed all the stages of the occupation. I witnessed inhumane horrors at the hands of what I had been told for so long was a benevolent government. They were horrors I had not anticipated to be so blatant in their nature and so extensive in their practice. Yet, the comforting light at the end of my journey was to have the opportunity to meet the people there who—in spite of their traumatic lives—only showed me love and hospitality.
There I was, on the other side of one of the biggest conflicts in world history, and all these people showed me was kindness. There was the husband and wife who, after feeding me to no end (an all-too-common occurrence), sent me on my way with a bag of peaches. The father, peering around the room, handed me an energy drink, desperate to give me anything. In one afternoon alone, four separate people on the street invited me to dinner that night. There was the taxi driver who took it upon himself to leave his shift to show me around the Old City and reveal all the secrets his town had to offer, and the restaurateur who took me in as I sought to break fast during Ramadan. As I finished the three-course Iftar, I asked him how much it would cost. He looked at me and replied, “No, Islam,” as he pointed to the sky.
These were people who often worked upward of 11 or 12 hours in a day to make not much money at all, and yet, here they were paying for my drinks, treating me to dinner and doing everything they can to make me feel welcome.
So how did a Jew from New York survive in a place in which the Anti-Defamation League found 93 percent of the population to be anti-Semitic? Aside from a group of trusted people, everyone in the West Bank thought I was Christian. I was racked with guilt of lying to people who had been so kind to me, yet I knew that if the wrong person had found out my background, there could be grave repercussions.
Ultimately, my identity would not have made a difference with most people. In conversations I had, people repeatedly stated to me that they were not anti-Semitic—they were only anti-Zionist. They emphasized all the two Abrahamic religions shared, and they always mentioned the American Jews who voiced opposition to Israeli occupation. The picture I was viewing was vastly different than the one that had been painted for me when I was younger. I realized that statistics like the ADL’s was the result of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Even when I encountered anti-Semitism, which I will never condone, I knew it was the product of experiences that span far beyond my 21 years on this earth. Their fleeting interactions with Jews have often ended staring down the barrel of a gun.
Wars do not happen without a systematic dehumanization of your enemy. In Palestine, this dehumanization is the same in peacetime as it is in the throws of battle. The Palestinians live under military rule. Israel Defense Forces soldiers can effectively do as they please. Even places Palestinians are technically allowed to go would sometimes be off-limits. I listened as my friend told me how his ability to go to the Dead Sea, inside the West Bank, was dictated by whether a soldier along the way decided to turn him back or not. And if my friend asserted his right to go? “I might be shot.”
Whoever by name controlled areas of the West Bank, it was ultimately Israel that had the overriding power. Checkpoints were everywhere—soldiers were as common as olive trees. Before I arrived, there had been a video of an identified soldier shooting and killing an unarmed girl, yet nothing happened. There is virtually no international media found in the West Bank. Israel largely keeps the foreign press out and demands self-censorship.
Most international reports on the West Bank are in fact reported from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. To read the news unfolding in front of me distorted by the media at home only affirmed that I needed to share what I experienced. Censorship is one of Israel’s greatest weapons—the reality does not match the story given to the public.
A towering slab of concrete divides Israel and Palestine. The wall’s construction destroyed dozens of villages, has caused an endless economic depression and imprinted permanent psychological damage to the Palestinian people. Every time I mentioned going to Tel Aviv, guilt would seep through as people lamented their desire to just one day be able to see the ocean. It pained me as I’d pass Jerusalem from the other side of the wall and those around me would look on at the Dome of the Rock in the distance, wishing to one day pray there. It was always an awkward topic to mention my travels in Israel, having visited all these places as a foreigner. These places were a part of their childhood, yet now they could never experience what I did with such ease. The wall penetrated people’s minds and livelihood in so many ways, even in life-or-death situations. There was a boy who fell ill and needed immediate medical attention. His family drove to the wall to go to the hospital in Jerusalem. In spite of his critical condition, soldiers denied permission for him to go. He died at the wall. These stories are far from uncommon.
Visiting the wall was intensely emotional. In Bethlehem, people write down their experiences and tape them to the wall. The stories stretch for miles. Street art on the wall calls for freedom and justice, a world where they “build bridges, not walls.” Tears flowed down my face in a gentle stream. I came upon an inscription: “Judaism ≠ Zionism,” as a Crescent Moon and Star of David were drawn side-by-side. I collapsed to my knees. The messages in front of me were cries of desperation, of humanity. And yet, only on this side of the wall could these cries be heard.
Even in the West Bank, Palestinians struggle to move around. Checkpoints arbitrarily turn people back or detain them for hours on end, despite international law limiting detention without reason to 20 minutes. People are beaten and humiliated at these checkpoints. These are not defensive measures. They occur unprovoked and upon innocent bystanders. With checkpoints and limited roads available to the Palestinians, a 60-mile trip from Hebron to Jenin can take six hours.
Foreign aid workers are hardly welcome in the West Bank. The friends I had were forced to lie under the pretenses of their stays in Israel or face being turned away. Each time they leave, they fear they won’t be allowed back in. Suspicion of going to the West Bank leads to detention in the airport or on the border for hours, with the very possible result of being turned away. I knew an American lawyer who was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport. They demanded to look through her computer. Knowing her rights, she said no. They told her they would take her computer and send it back to her. When it was sent back, there was a bullet hole through it.
Members of Christian Peacemaker Teams—a human rights organization with funding from the United Nations—have had their credentials turned down at the border. Even when they get into the West Bank, there are risks. They have been arrested by the IDF for simply escorting Palestinian children to school to prevent violence from settlers and soldiers alike.
I cannot count the amount of times I witnessed and learned things in which I’d fall silent. I asked myself, ‘Why? What is the reason?’ The answer always was: there was no reason. I’ve witnessed what the government and thus media declare to be security measures. They’re not security measures. They're oppression.
The prisoners Palestinians refer to as “the kidnapped” are those who are under Israeli administrative detention. Administrative detention was a law carried over and expanded from the times of the British Mandate. It allows Israel to throw anyone in prison—in use, Palestinians—for up to six months without charges or due process. They simply renew the sentence every six months, making imprisonment indefinite. These cases are nonviolent in nature and are largely used as a measure to suppress political activism in the West Bank.
The first night I was in Hebron, I met a man who was in administrative detention for five years. He was silenced after being politically active on his college campus against the occupation. There were others I had met who had been imprisoned under similar terms. None of them committed any wrongful crimes.
I had tea in the home of another man who had been imprisoned under administrative detention for four years. Hamas had been helping to pay for his college tuition, so he was thrown in jail. What people don’t realize about support for Hamas in the West Bank is that it does not come out of a desire to kill all Jews. In times of relative calm, most support actually comes from Hamas’s social welfare programs, such as helping kids pay for school, running soup kitchens and organizing community activities such as soccer leagues. This dynamic changed as the war in Gaza began.