The separation wall between Israel and Palestine is not as monstrous as I thought it would be. There is no looming presence, just a stark grey wall. The Palestine side is supposed to be this beautiful mural of hope and protest. We never got to see that side.
On the long drive back from Haifa to Jerusalem on the third day of our trip, we drove through the West Bank to get back to the Holy City. Jerusalem is surrounded by Palestine on three sides, and is thus surrounded by walls. The highway had the separation wall and fence on both sides of the road. The lights of the Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns faintly illuminated the black desert sky.
We were driving on a road the Palestinians are forbidden to travel on; yet it cuts through their way of life.
It is difficult to imagine a life where your rights and identity are continually denied and ignored by your very neighbors.
But as a Jew, I stand on the other side of the fence in the religiously proclaimed homeland, where all Jews are welcome and all Jews are free. There is a strong sense of identity and unity in Israel that is fundamental, stemming to the very roots of our biblical beginning, strengthened by the devastation of the Holocaust and celebrated by our universal Aliyah to our home: Israel.
Yet Israeli society is deeply fractured into orthodox and ultra orthodox sects, young and old citizens, and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. It’s obvious in the mere creation of cities: Tel Aviv is for those that are mainly secular and Jerusalem is divided into section upon section upon section of individual communities of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
So where do I fit in? I’m an American Jew; I had a bat-mitzvah but no longer go to synagogue. My mother is fluent in Hebrew, but I can barely even read the different alphabet and know only 20 words.
I stood in front of the Western Wall in near tears on Friday night—I was finally in front of the holiest site in the Jewish faith on the holiest day of week. A current of belonging resonated between the stone blocks on the wall in front of me. I was reaching out to touch the wall in front of me and place a folded prayer that I had been waiting my whole life to place between the cracks, when a stranger grabbed my shoulder shall and yanked it down. She scolded me in Hebrew for having a small part of my skin showing. I didn’t even know what she said, but I felt ashamed. I left without placing the prayer for my family and only returned with my classmates by my side, none of whom were even Jewish.
Segregated by sex, the female Israeli soldiers started to dance and sing religious songs after jealously watching the men’s side do the same. I knew some of the songs but didn’t join in because I felt out of place, self-conscious of my possibly exposed skin.
The potentially most existential moment of my life was ruined. Maybe it was because I wasn’t with religious people or my family, but suddenly I questioned my very connection with Israel.
The land itself is beautiful. The waves of the Mediterranean Sea crash on white beaches of hot sand. The Golan Heights boast thousands of rows of date trees, apples, grapes and olives. The land of milk and honey holds true to its name.
But its total enjoyment is limited to those that practice the Jewish faith. When our ethnically diverse group traveled through the market, people would stop and question our very friendship because we were not the same race. The very concept of an American lineage was troublesome for nearly every person we encountered. If someone pointed at me and said a country, I would just say yes to avoid explaining my family story: nearly anything was more satisfactory then the melting pot of American heritage.
At the Knesset, MK Dr. Nachman Shai went around and asked each person where we were “really from.” He paused at Yvonne because she was black and couldn’t believe she was simply American.
Throughout our trip, another classmate Dima, a Muslim, was continuously subjected to additional security checks and interrogations because of her hijab.
Is it fair that I feel guilty for these incidents? Dr. Shai was blatantly racist, and because I am Jewish I felt somewhat affiliated to what he said. If Israel represents all of the Jews, I am connected to how it treats its citizens and the surrounding or visiting people.
Yet as we drove to Jerusalem I looked at the dividing wall with shame. I listened to Samah Salaime Agbariye, a Palestinian social worker, speak on the deplorable state of Arab women’s rights and felt horrible. I stared in disbelief at countless number of Israeli government officials who recounted the recent Gaza war without remorse for the innocent Palestinians and children who lost their lives.
I won’t deny the need of a Jewish state for the security, safety and well-being of the Jewish people. The consistent fear of another Holocaust keeps the Israeli people vigilant at all times for potential threats, but that doesn’t excuse the occupation of Palestine. How can I completely stand by a country that only grants rights to those who have the same religious beliefs?
My family history pulls me in support of Israel, and my connection to humanity pulls me in the opposite direction.
Soon I will break, and my voice will be lost in the sea of hatred. My words will wash up on the banks of both shores with unanswered hopes for peace. I’m tied to both sides, so how will I swim? I’m stuck until the two sides come together and become one or until the contempt dries up and all that’s left is common ground.