When I came to the Arava Institute as an intern, I did not realize that I would have to participate in any of the classes, and I was a bit disgruntled that my time would not be focused solely on research, but also on campus life and academia. One of the classes I am required to take with all of the other participants, is the Peace-Building Leadership Seminar (PLS). Why would I have to take that? I am a peaceful person with an academic background in human rights. Could I see the benefit? Sure. However, I believed that I did not need it, just like I didn’t need to involve myself in campus activities. After all, I was here to work.
As much as I dreaded attending the PLS sessions at the beginning, I was always grateful that I did. They are stretching, exhausting, enlightening, informing, and transforming. As time has gone on, I stopped seeing the other students as a general group of people that I am co-existing with, and started seeing them as individuals with incredible stories. I was forced to open up by breaking down my walls, and I was thankful for it.
Last week, we embarked on the spring semester PLS trip. The itinerary was designed to encourage us to go into greater depth into the Palestinian and Jewish Israeli narratives. The first day we traveled to Lifta village to see what is left of some of the homes left by their Palestinian residents. Later that day, we met with Husam, a Palestinian tour guide who was once an active participant in the intifadas and on Israel’s most wanted list, and is now a voice for non-violent action, using education and communication as a means for effective change.
After an exhausting first day, we later met as a group to discuss the events and how we felt. You could see that some of the Israeli students were pensive, taking in what they learned about Lifta and Husam’s stories. In that evening discussion, we discussed entering the following day’s activities with an open mind, not focusing on semantics, but on the stories and the narratives. We started the day at Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I cried nearly the whole way through. I cried out of sadness for the people who suffered so terribly, both the victims and the perpetrators. I cannot imagine the ignorance and guilt one has to live with both as an active participant and a passive bystander in such atrocities. It made me sad for the Jews. It made me angry at anti-Semitism. It gave me a rage towards bigotry, ignorance, and ideologies that cause all of the mass murders, genocides, discrimination, and hate. It gave me compassion and understanding (as much as an outsider can understand) for the suffering of Jewish and non-Jewish victims during the Holocaust, as well as the many others who have been victims of such dogma and violence. Finally, it made me sad for Palestinians, another group who did not do anything to deserve to live behind walls as second class citizens. The museum forced me to ask, “When will we begin to see each other as equals? When will we treat each other in the spirit of brotherly love, as called to do? How can we flourish and develop, without harming other people or the next generation from being able to do the same?” That is what sustainable development and human rights are fundamentally about. How do we live it?
Our final activity of the trip was hearing from Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author and journalist, a brilliant man with an interesting and controversial perspective. All of the students were engaged with his narrative and perspective and there wasn’t nearly enough time for him to answer all of our questions. What I admired most about what he said is the acknowledgment that Israelis and Palestinians are both indigenous to this land. The recognition of both of their histories here is something that I rarely hear. Second, he confidently agreed and acknowledged that the way to peace starts with equal rights and access to basic needs like water, sanitation, and movement for the Palestinians.
After two long days, we made our way back home on the bus. I relish the time when I can sit and enjoy the scenery and listen to music that helps me to process what I’ve experienced. Towards the end of the ride home, one of the Arab students pulled out his guitar and started singing. Per my usual inflexible self, I was slightly bothered that he would subject us all to listening to music of his choice. However, once he started to sing, and then other Arabs on the bus joined in, and then other people joined in, I found such joy watching them. I watched them dance, and sing, and laugh. I realized in those final minutes on the bus, how much I had transformed through this trip. I realized how much I care about each and every one of them. I realized how similar we all are and how important their stories are. I realized the courage that they have just to be here, and the compassion and capacity for love, to listen to each others stories these last couple of days (and these last few months). I realized that I was looking at world changers and peace makers and how special it is that I can be a part of their lives.
My friend e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago from home in the US, and asked me if I had met anyone particularly interesting or special here. My first thought (likely because I am from New York City) was, “had I met any celebrities?”’ I told her that off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anyone. However, as we were arriving back at the Institute, and I watched the students enjoying each others presence through their music culture, I realized that I had met some really special people… at least 45 of them.
Submitted by Bethany MacNeill