13 August 2006

happy just because i found out i am really no one.

Seven weeks ago, I boarded a plane in Orlando, confident in who I was, where I was going, and what I believed. I had studied abroad or traveled in two dozen countries before landing in Israel and Palestine, and felt rather jaded to the "life-changing" effects of time in another country. I knew I would learn an absurd amount of information in a short time about one of history's most complex conflicts, but I felt sure such knowledge would not send my personal five-year plan into the trash can, leaving me questioning many of the principles I thought were carved in stone. I would spend my time in Haifa experiencing the Israeli-Palestinian feminist movement, drafting a powerful personal statement that would send me to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, and adding to the growing list of reasons the State Department would be foolish not to hire me one day. To everyone who told me I was crazy for going to a "dangerous" place like Israel, I would illustrate firsthand the idiocy of their close-minded and uninformed views.

Instead, I heard an air-raid siren, saw the inside of a bomb shelter, and evacuated from a city that had just begun to feel like home. Idealistic hopes for a peaceful solution collapsed in the face of a polarized reality, leaving me more determined but less hopeful than ever. My Jewish friends at home labeled me stupid and naive for ever believing the "terrorist" Arabs would settle for anything but Israel's complete obliteration. The Arab student community at the University of Florida labeled me an Islamaphobic, racist supporter of Israeli and American human rights violations, and rejected my study of a language I have grown to love as Orientalist. In the span of a week, I found myself suddenly unwelcome in the region I wanted to dedicate my life to bettering.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), my love of travel is rivaled only by my stubbornness. Stubborn, perhaps, but not close-minded. I walked away from Israel with a newfound love for the people of a nation whose policies I despised, and a frustration with the nation whose cause I supported wholeheartedly. I arrived in Israel a staunch Palestinian sympathizer. Initially put off by everyone's "are you Jewish?" inquiry within the first five minutes of introduction, I later realized no one really cared, they just wanted to know. The Israeli people welcomed me as an ally, always curious about my interest in their country and supportive of my intentions, a reaction I never expected given my vocal criticisms of their government. While my disdain for Israeli policy has not changed, I gained a new sympathy for the often precarious position in which Israel finds itself.

Simultaneously, I have grown to view the Palestinians not as innocent victims, but as an example of heartbreaking complacency and lost potential. The Palestinian people are the most educated in the Arab world, and yet promising young people feel they have no other options besides martyrdom as a suicide bomber. The territories are awash in wasted potential, and it angers me that they are willing to sit back and let a generation of young people fall victim to extremism. While the Israeli government needs to reexamine its policies, the Palestinians need to take a long, hard look at their own society before peace will ever be possible. My simultaneous support for and frustration with both sides of this conflict has angered and bewildered those who take sides, but I maintain that such neutrality is vital to a sustainable peace. I would rather see peace than victory for either side, and no amount of mudslinging will deter me from that cause.

Most disappointing about my time in Israel has been the overwhelming polarization of this conflict. People found me interesting (in a racist or positive way) precisely because I refused to choose a side. Even in my experience at an Israeli feminist peace organization, full of women far more critical of their government than I was, a sense of "us versus them" still pervaded the office. At the end of the day, the power dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians prevented the two from working together as genuine equals, much to my disappointment. Everyone in Haifa was proud to tell us about how well Jews and Arabs coexisted in their city, but not without first clarifying their own origins. If no one really cares what side you come from, then why does everyone ask?

Even in the peace movement, and most alarmingly in the general population, I felt a sense of hopelessness in regards to an eventual settlement. While a handful of people dedicate their lives to working for peace, thousands of others have resigned themselves to a life of conflict. Border crossings and security checks are a way of life. Everything can change in the blink of an eye, but only in the narrow scope of conflict. That possibility of sudden change does not appear to extend to a sudden peace, much to my dismay. The day I returned to Haifa to gather my belongings, the two young boys I followed into the shelter knew exactly what to do and where to go before their mother even opened their car door. War and conflict are a way of life in Israel, and while the population's determination to keep living is positive in a way, it also represents a greater acceptance of a state of violence as the norm. If war is accepted as a way of life, the transition to peace is that much more difficult.

As I learned firsthand how quickly everything can change, I realized how much of my life has been spent planning for the future instead of living in the moment. Little things we planned to do in Haifa like the good beach or the cable car up to Stella Maris never happened because we said we could just go tomorrow. I have always been a successful procrastinator, but Israel illustrated the chances I may very well be abandoning by putting them off for another day. On a deeper level, I realized that silence my emotions for fear that possible rejection will hurt more than uncertainty. Sitting in a bomb shelter on a beautiful afternoon made me realize (forgive the cliché) that tomorrow is never guaranteed. I am realizing that knowledge, however painful, is far more productive than silence in the long run. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have new resolve to plan less and live more.

Israel left me pondering (and ultimately rejecting) my five year plan in favor of a less prestigious, but hopefully more socially useful one. I know I will not change the world, but at least I will have gone down fighting. But I realized that I wanted someone to notice my fight and remember my name, and that is obscenely selfish and arrogant. I wanted to go to Oxford partially for the quality of education, but partially for the prestige that comes with the name. But prestigious names alone should not garner respect - I should not be worth a damn to anyone until I have made a positive impact. Working in Israel showed me that I am more useful on the ground in the Middle East than holed up in a library in England.

I have always been fascinated by religion, predominantly because I never understood its appeal. While in the midst of a conflict in which religion plays such a dominant role, I found myself simultaneously grateful for my atheism and longing for my most religious friends. Observing how religion is distorted and exploited in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made me desperate to talk to someone resolute in their faith, yet accepting of those who think differently. Indeed, upon returning, the first people I really spoke to about my experience were my two most conservative, devoutly Christian friends. While we joked about my empty sinner's life and their reliance on religion as a crutch, their unwavering support and love for me gives me hope that my heart is in the right place and I may actually one day be welcomed as part of a sustainable peace in the region. I expected to walk away from this internship with an even greater disregard for organized religion, but instead find myself profoundly curious. I want to know what gives millions of people hope and guidance, yet can be distorted so badly to encourage violence and hatred. I want to read the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah to understand these faiths in their true form. I may never believe, but that does not mean I cannot understand.


And that's the end of obscenely long posts, I promise. From now on, short and sweet, and only very seldomly related to the Middle East. For those who have been here since the beginning, I'll have you know you read 50 single spaced pages of my thoughts in six weeks - mazeltov/mabrook! Thanks for reading, and please don't quit now!


Jelly Doughnut said...
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Jelly Doughnut said...

As always, I am impressed with your writing and insight. Though the world is big, and you are but one small person with a short time in which to make your mark, I don't doubt that the choices you will make and the ideals in which you so fervently believe will impact many around the world. Like you said: "Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History." Go make some. -Jessica