On my first trip to Bethlehem a decade ago, I was not afraid; I was full of curiosity, eager to experience the unknown. Just fifteen minutes from Jerusalem, our group of Jewish leaders entered a foreign world. There, we spent two days with Encounter, a nonpartisan educational organization, listening to Palestinian activists and leaders.
I felt the sting of injustice as I sat with a family in their home, surrounded on three sides by the towering separation barrier. Listening to a speaker I found inspiring, I struggled as he stated that throwing stones at Israeli tanks constituted a nonviolent act, given the power imbalance. I awoke to the deafening call of a muezzin in the home of a warm Palestinian family who could have been my friends in a different reality.
For one moment, I did experience fear: Walking in downtown Bethlehem, we passed a group of Israeli soldiers. In Jerusalem, the soldiers’ omnipresence made me feel safe; here, it felt jarring, almost threatening. It was the first time I’d felt afraid hearing Hebrew, which until then had evoked only familiarity, comfort, and holiness.
I was not afraid for my physical wellbeing. But as I saw the soldiers through the eyes of our Palestinian hosts, I felt the fear of vulnerability.
I imagined articulating my tangled feelings about these teenagers — devotedly protecting my people while unwittingly, reluctantly (or, perhaps, willingly) oppressing another people — and I was troubled by my ambivalence about their role.
God tells Abraham, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house.” (Genesis 12:1) The order here seems counterintuitive: When you leave for a journey, you leave first your home, then your birthplace, and finally your land — not the other way around.
My experiences listening to Palestinians have taught me the wisdom of that reversed order. When journeying to a new land, we see first its all-encompassing foreignness; we experience having left our land. As we go deeper, details come into focus, highlighting sharp contrasts with the particulars of our lives: our birthplace, our parents’ homes. We are compelled to reexamine our relationships with our families and communities.
As this other “land” and people have become more familiar, I’ve begun to grapple more with my “birthplace” and my “parents’ home,” as well as my own relationships, commitments, and values.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably the most urgent and painful challenge facing the Jewish people. The vitriolic discourse around the conflict has made me afraid to speak openly and venture forth into the terrifying realm of profound disagreement with people I love.
Yet, the more I travel these roads, the more I am convinced that as Jews we must learn to speak constructively across our own ideological chasms if this conflict is ever to be transformed. Difficult as it is, I am so grateful to be on this journey.
Leah Solomon is regional director in the Jerusalem office of Encounter, a nonpartisan educational organization seeding more constructive Jewish engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has worked since 1997 in the field of experiential, pluralistic Jewish education, most recently as associate director of the Nesiya Institute.