It is easy to be wrong about Israel these days, but nearly impossible to be right. There are so many facts, so much history, and so much complexity, that the uninformed can easily draw conclusions that are illegitimate. But that does not mean that becoming informed leads to a clear or uniform answer. Understanding the facts does not present a course of action. My trip to Isreal only confirmed this belief.
I traveled over Spring Break as a part of a trip organized and attended by Jewish Yale undergraduates. We went, to paraphrase our mission statement, to understand what Zionism means in the 21st century, and to reinforce identification with Israel. I wanted to understand the Israeli situation better and to learn the nuances of the Arab-Israeli conflict that do not trickle down via CNN or The New York Times.
Shortly before we departed for Ben Gurion airport, we found out that a suicide bomber had blown himself up outside a cafe in Jerusalem. Our hotel was located a block from the wreckage. Coming from the airport to the hotel, we passed by the remains of the cafe, and I noticed the flowers and the candles that had been set up as an impromptu shrine.
Our trip was a busy one. We spoke to politicians, professors, journalists, intellectuals, university students, and activists. We visited the American embassy in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. We saw a kindergarten where Israeli and Palestinian children learn together. We toured Jerusalem and began to understand the technical complexity that a plan to split the city would entail. We met with Yale alumni who live in Israel. We struggled to take in as much information as we could while attempting to think critically and honestly about what we were told. We argued amongst ourselves and we debated the people we went to visit.
While touring Jerusalem, our guide stopped the bus on the side of the road. We were in an Arab neighborhood that was right next to a Jewish one. The road on which we were standing is the only one that connects the two neighborhoods. He asked us, “If we split the city into Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, who controls the road?” Those are the types of questions that Israelis in the know are thinking about.
We moved on to the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. Our guide showed us the sandbags and the concrete barriers that the Israeli government erected to protect the apartments that were under constant fire from Beit Jala, located just outside Jerusalem. He showed us the building in Beit Jala from which most of the shooting had come. The building was easy to recognize because of the gaping hole in the side of the building where Israeli tank shells had knocked out the wall between two windows.
One event on our schedule best explained to me the true nature of the situation. We were sitting at the Israel Forum in Tel Aviv listening to five Yale alumni explain their views of the situation. Five articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, informed adults took the same set of facts and found similar problems but radically different solutions. They argued with each other, failed to convince one another, and I just sat there and watched them.
What I learned from being in Israel is that now is a time that is different from any since I have been alive. People are upset and afraid, angered and saddened. They feel they have tried everything, and it has not worked. They celebrate the way Israelis have pulled together in this time of stress and mourn the way it has pushed the Jews and Arabs far apart.
But certain basics remain. Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state and a democracy, and its citizens have a right to go about their lives without fear of a terrorist attack. No pizza parlors, no supermarkets, no outdoor markets, and no cafes should have to be turned into shrines for the dead. About all of this, I found that I am not mistaken. After that, it is easy to be wrong, and nobody really knows what it means to be right.
Noam Waldoks is a sophomore in Silliman College.