Participants on J Street’s first ‘Let My People Know’ trip in Hebron. (Photo/Courtesy J Street)
Participants on J Street’s first ‘Let My People Know’ trip in Hebron. (Photo/Courtesy J Street)

Unlike Birthright, J Street’s trip shows the toll of occupation on both sides

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The Passover seder ends with the quixotic wish “Next year in Jerusalem!” In my own diaspora community, this phrase has been tacked onto the end of each seder, but it begs a question: What’s stopping us?

For some, Israel does not feel like our birthright, but rather a distant land mired in controversy. I knew the issues, but none of the people who were affected by their consequence, so countless perspectives went unheard. This is what J Street U’s “Let Our People Know” trip in July sought to rectify — the growing indifference toward Israel-Palestine in the diaspora and the lack of true, educated and informed connection.

Addressing this problem is a daunting task, and a free trip to Israel is not a guaranteed solution. I went for a semester in high school. I ate falafel, danced on a kibbutz and heard from countless Israelis about why they, and I, should love Israel. In those four months, I did not engage with a single Palestinian and was “protected” from the West Bank, and the only Arabic I heard was the word “yalla!” (c’mon!).

This experience left me with an incomplete picture of Israel, one based on Dead Sea mud and hummus rather than a deep understanding and empathy of what it means to live in Israel-Palestine. The J Street U trip appealed to me, and the 27 other college participants, because it promised to offer more than that. Through rich and engaging dialogue with people in the region, from all backgrounds and walks of life, it felt like the trip that would finally paint the full picture.

“Let Our People Know” was powerful from the start of the 10-day experience. The organizers and speakers were candid and taught us an incredible amount of history through countless different lenses. Though the physical walls were daunting and formidable, the metaphorical ones, between my understanding of the conflict and those living it, were changed by the narratives from Israelis in moshavs and settlements, and from Palestinians in the West Bank and beyond. These stories demonstrate the toll that the occupation takes on all people.

One particularly powerful story came from the Palestinian village of Susya, a smattering of dwellings on a hill, well into the West Bank. There, community leader Nasser Nawajah shared his village’s story of struggle with us. After their original village was declared an archaeological site, the inhabitants were removed by the IDF. They have since relocated to a nearby region and live in abject poverty a few kilometers from their original home. Among the resources they lack, water stands out. Despite water running below their village, despite having the means to drill and petition for a permit, and despite the Israeli settlements acquiring water effortlessly a stone’s throw away, the villagers of Susya go thirsty. They have been denied permits to build their own cistern and instead must meet soldiers once a week to march to a nearby water source. Once there, there’s no guarantee they will get water, as the presence of one settler in protest is enough for the IDF to turn them back. As politicians argue and judges deny permits, the lives of the Susyans are quietly being pushed to the side, becoming a footnote in the story of Israel-Palestine.

While I feel a deep sympathy for these settlers, the existential threats facing Palestinians carry far more urgency.

As the goal of “Let Our People Know” was to expose us to a plethora of views, it would be reckless not to engage in the same deliberate way with settlers themselves. This came shortly after our interactions with Palestinians, so I was eager to hear from people on the other side of the conflict. In Psagot, we engaged in a meaningful conversation with three settlers who live over the Green Line. We asked about what life was like there, what their day-to-day problems were, and why two of them had immigrated to the West Bank. It was an emotional interaction, one that evoked tears from many of us for many reasons. One settler, Rabbi Uri Pilichowski from Florida, described the challenges of living over the Green Line and the fear he experiences. His difficulties, admittedly, did not strike me the same way as Nasser’s story of the constant fight for water. The settlers have the support of the Israeli government, the same government that actively fought against Susyans’ basic needs.

The trip revealed an asymmetry in the legal, geopolitical, economic and military power between Israel and Palestine. While I feel a deep and very real sympathy for these settlers, the existential threats facing Palestinians, who did not choose to live in occupied territory, are features rather than flukes of the Israeli system and carry far more urgency.

After hearing from Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, and diaspora Jews who made aliyah to live in the West Bank, our group came to understand how strongly each individual’s experience influences his or her view of the conflict. “Let Our People Know” helped us collect perspectives and empathy for each party involved, never asking us to accept one at the expense of another. Rather than urging us to conform our views to those of a speaker, the trip leaders informed us of how speakers’ views would differ from one another, without assigning moral value to them.

Uri’s stories of living in fear of a potential attack horrified us. Simultaneously, it was disturbing to hear how he characterized the tents of displaced Susyans as illegal constructions when their very existence was a product of land seizures by the occupation’s civil administration. Uri’s story is important and compelling but needs to be contextualized within the conflict and the administration that supports his position. My sympathy stops where his lack of self-awareness of his own privilege, support from the U.S. and Israeli governments, and the institutional and systemic terror against Palestinians begins.

Anyone who thinks that the ferocity and endurance of this conflict can be blamed on any individual or group in Israel-Palestine does not understand the violence people throughout the region experience and perpetrate. For this reason, to “hope for the best for both peoples” while characterizing one’s own government as “moral and just” does a great disservice to efforts of peace. Rather, it is the understanding that “there are things we can do better” that drives us as young people interested in a peaceful and safe future for Nasser’s and Uri’s families alike.

Ethan Wellerstein
Ethan Wellerstein

Ethan Wellerstein is a second-year philosophy and economics student at UC Davis. He is from Lafayette.