Antarctica peace trek breaks the ice between Palestinians, Jews

Four Israelis and three out of four Palestinians are drinking vodka, all of them dancing with a bunch of Ukrainians on a ship in Antarctica.

“On the one hand, it seems so crazy,” said Doron Erel, one of the Israelis who partied on the ship. “But when you’re there, it’s so normal.”

In the Bay Area this week, on a trip sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Erel spoke about his participation in “Breaking the Ice,” an expedition he led of Israelis and Palestinians to Antarctica in January, and showed breathtaking slides of the journey.

At the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center on Tuesday, June 1, Erel recalled how an Israeli friend living in Berlin called him a year ago and said, “I have an idea that will change your life.”

Erel was used to life-changing journeys. The only Israeli to have climbed Mt. Everest, he has also climbed the highest mountains on every continent, “the thing that those who have climbed Everest do, when they don’t know what to do next,” he said.

The expedition would leave from the southernmost point in Chile, sail 600 miles through the Drake Passage and hike several days through snow to reach an unnamed mountain, which they would climb and name.

It was a diverse group. Six men and two women. Two of the Palestinians had spent significant time in Israeli prisons, one for stabbing an Israeli. The Palestinian woman, the only one with Israeli citizenship, is a professional volleyball player. A Palestinian journalist lost his brother to an Israeli attack.

Erel is the son of Holocaust survivors, and his parents were on the infamous Exodus ship. His friend who initiated the trip is the son of Iraqi parents. One of the Israelis was born in Ethiopia, and walked across Sudan as a child. Arriving in Israel illiterate, she recently obtained her Ph.D.

“I didn’t ask anyone about their political opinions,” said Erel. “If someone is willing to join something like this, that’s good enough.”

They also had several professional sailors with them, two Swiss mountain guides, a doctor, two cameramen and a director, and a satellite communications expert.

After a week of training in Chamonix, Switzerland (none of them except Erel had touched snow before), the delegation flew to Chile. And they set off in seas so rough that two participants were not seen for the first three days of the journey.

After 15 days, they got to the mountain, and it took six hours of climbing, with all of them attached to each other by rope, to reach the summit. Once there, they named it “The Mountain of Israeli-Palestinian Friendship”

They drank champagne, and held up an Israeli and a Palestinian flag together, as well as an artists’ flag representing both peoples. They read a statement declaring their belief in dialogue and nonviolence as a way to end conflict.

Yet tensions erupted when one Israeli discovered the Palestinian flag carried the signature of Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat.

He refused to participate at that symbolic moment, souring relations between him and the three Palestinian men.

When the group returned to Chile, they were welcomed at the airport by a handful of Jews and Palestinians in Santiago — brought together by Len and Libby Traubman and Elias and Fanny Botto, founders of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue group in San Mateo. Although Chile has some 350,000 Palestinian residents, Jews and Palestinians there do not mingle.

“It was the first time that we realized that we touched people not on the boat,” said Erel. He concluded, “I really believe that natural beauty brings out the best in people.”

Extreme Peace Missions, the German-based organization that sponsored the expedition, hopes to greatly expand its mission, bringing warring peoples together for this kind of adventure. A documentary is also in progress.

For more information, plus scenic views of the expedition, visit

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."