When I arrived in Israel last summer to study to become a rabbi, I knew I had arrived in one of the most complex regions of the world, but I was prepared for outrage.
I’m a millennial who grew up in liberal circles in San Francisco, and like many people with my background, I have been convinced for a long time that Israel treats the people of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unfairly.
I believed it was important to hold onto the simplicity of the injustice of the conflict, for the approach of civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis had made a deep impression on me.
In a 2017 podcast, Lewis explained his motivation for risking his life for the civil rights movement in a straightforward, relatable way. After he described segregation in the South, including “whites only” waiting rooms and segregated seating on public transportation, he said plainly that he had “tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and he didn’t like it.” Lewis’ explanation of his motivation seemed to illustrate how moral clarity can propel great historic change.
Soon after I arrived in Israel in July to begin my studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I saw plenty of obvious examples of the injustices Israel perpetrates against Palestinians.
On one occasion, I watched a televised World Cup game in the community center of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village that was slated to be bulldozed by Israeli authorities because it was built without permits that are almost impossible to obtain. (The Israeli government later backed down from its plans, but Khan al-Ahmar’s long-term status remains uncertain.)
Another time, I went with a few classmates to Umm al-Khair, a Palestinian village south of Hebron. As we got off a bus, we saw a curious collection of mangled pieces of corrugated metal and various other debris scattered around the village’s community center. Despite possessing documentation that they bought their land legally decades ago, the villagers found that every time they built permanent structures on their land, Israeli authorities demolished them. We learned from one of the courageous leaders of the village, Awdah al-Hathalean, that we were looking at what was left of bulldozed homes.
And yet during my time in Israel — and particularly through my studies at HUC — I have been struck by how Israeli perspectives can complicate basic narratives about the conflict. By learning more about the history, I have come to better understand the common view held many Israelis that their country is surrounded by hostile neighboring states.