The complexity of human beings undermines the supposed tidiness of politics. Last summer during my first trip to Israel, my interactions with individuals placed into question my naive trust in political claims.
My introduction to the country was at the Allenby Bridge. I had come from Lebanon via Jordan where I had been teaching Tanakh (Old Testament) at a Christian seminary. The stamps on my passport raised questions for the Israeli soldiers at the border.
“What were you doing in Lebanon?”
“Teaching Tanakh!” I responded.
They teach Tanakh in Lebanon?!”
Delight appeared in the faces of the guards. My teaching brought an unexpected connection for them; the Tanakh had been revealed in Lebanon. (I managed to get through the gate relatively quickly.)
The man in front of me was an American tourist. When asked what he was planning to do in Israel, with bright eyes he spread his fingers.
“I have ten things I want to see in Israel!”
And proceeded to list them off. He went through passport control quickly, too.
I met families who balanced varied political positions within a single family. In one Orthodox family, the wife tended towards a Two-State solution, with sympathy for Palestinian rights. The husband tends to believe in a more nationalist Israeli agenda. Moreover, the wife is more sympathetic towards President Obama, while her husband is explicitly less so. The two of them make a great couple; they love each other very much. I was pleased to see a beautiful couple for whom their relationship – rather than politics – takes center-stage.
When I visited the Old City, I spent time with Palestinians in the Christian and Muslim Quarters. I spoke Arabic to them, which I had practiced a lot in Lebanon. In one of my first conversations, the shopkeeper was pleased to see that I spoke Arabic.
“The tourists are like cows,” he said. “Someone tells them to go this way, and they all flow that way.”
He recounted how on more than one occasion, Americans were shocked to find Arabs in Israel, let alone Jerusalem. While he tries to argue for his right to exist in Jerusalem as a full citizen, realizing that some Americans do not even know of his very existence in this land clearly disappointed him. He enjoyed the fact that I, an American, was willing to speak with him on his terms, in Arabic.
On one trip to the Old City, I was drinking coffee with one of my new Palestinian friends. A young, Christian man (the Palestinians told me he was probably a Sudanese refugee) was loudly preaching about how Israel had to repent and accept Jesus. The Palestinians came over and were laughing at him. Several of them were Christian, and had already accepted Jesus. At one point, the Sudanese man said the reason Israel had to repent was because it was “full of terrorists.” The Palestinians perceived a dig against them and were no longer laughing. One spoke sharply to him:
“Why do you come here to help our country? Your country has plenty of problems. Why don’t you stay and help them? Because you’re a coward and won’t fight in the war!”
The young man moved on, and my friend and I drank our coffee.
Ignorance about Israel, I learned, is wide-spread. It is easy to know enough about Israel to be dangerous. For example:
“Israel is a bunch of oppressive thugs! They should just quit occupying Palestine!”
“The Palestinians are terrorists! Israel should just lock those guys up!”
Realizing the complexities of the country and its people helped me to understand a little about the problems I heard so much about. It makes me see how far those who focus on politics are removed from the actual people that I saw and met. Meeting with and talking to individuals embroiled in complex and dangerous politics gave me a more nuanced and I hope, more sympathetic, view based on the experiences and views of real human beings rather than political sound bites.
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