By Aaron Bregman
There is a crisis of confidence today between the Israelis and Palestinians. Their societies are so polarized and enamored with supporting and protecting their political and cultural struggles that it is near impossible to sit down and talk about the issues that matter most. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said, “Most of the approaches to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, have been directed at trying to resolve the most complex problems, like refugees and Jerusalem, which is akin to building the pyramid from the top down.” Many people often ask how do we resolve Middle East Peace? What is the formula that both sides would agree to? While everyone focuses on the “core issues” of the Conflict, many forget the human side of the Conflict – those individuals and families that endure this situation every day.
As a student and teacher of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, I was given a rare opportunity this summer to travel to the West Bank with over two dozen North American Jewish leaders to sit and listen to numerous Palestinians on their perspective, narrative, and beliefs about the future advancements of Middle East peace. The program was sponsored by Encounter, an independent, non-partisan organization that cultivates informed and constructive North American Jewish leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The program serves an important purpose as leaders in the American Jewish community frequently visit Israel and hear about regional news from Israeli friends and family yet, the majority have never met with Palestinians face-to-face, nor visited Palestinian communities in the West Bank. Our trip took us on a four-day expedition meeting only with Palestinians and going on a “listening tour” where Palestinian community leaders shared what they thought were the most critical issues facing their future so that we could have a more holistic view of the Conflict.
During the trip, we traveled and stayed in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem. The sights and sounds that we heard were fascinating. In total, Encounter introduced us to fifteen guest speakers throughout the program, all from various socio-economic backgrounds. There were leaders from Khalet Zakariya, a Palestinian village in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. There was the head of the Aida refugee camp, situated in Bethlehem. We were introduced to people like Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American based in Ramallah, who relocated with his family to the West Bank from the United States in 1995 to assist in the building of the Palestinian telecommunications sector. And finally, people like Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a professor of Political Science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
The trip was both an educational as well as an emotional experience. We heard presentations on a variety of themes that connected from one speaker to another. Topics ranged from the security barrier and the IDF to the future of the Palestinian leadership. Additionally, historical subjects were debated such as the “failure” of the Oslo Accords, the outcome of the intifadas, and the future of a two-state solution. However, as I was madly scribbling in my journal, trying to learn and absorb a culture that I had approached virtually from an academic standpoint, the emotional side of the trip began to shape many participants including myself. The concept of empathy: the act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the actions of another was something that was inherent in our four days together. Talking to people and asking them how they feel, what they want, and what they think may seem simplistic, but I found this to be invaluable. Having this dialogue is far less challenging than studying the Conflict because it involves hearing real stories instead of endlessly speculating about the future. It’s a smarter way to truly understand the gravity and the impact of the Conflict.
When people ask me if this trip changed my point of view about the Conflict, I reply with a firm no, and my explanation is simple. Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis both want their children to enjoy the kind of normalcy that can only be achieved by peace. This is the direction leaders should take – to lead them from conflict to tranquility, from despair to hope, and from intolerance to reconciliation. I am and always will be a Zionist. I love the Jewish State of Israel and want what is best for the people and the land. And I still believe in the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. However, this program underscored that this isn’t a one-size fits all problem. Everyone has ideas, and everyone has what they think is the right solution – but not everyone has the understanding and background of what both sides experience and ultimately what they want for their future. Therefore, I hope my Encounter trip will help me become a better educator, student and global citizen of the Conflict moving forward because without this knowledge we will continue to only think about that top-down pyramid Netanyahu notes, rather than a bottom-up approach that takes the people on both sides into account.
Aaron Bregman is the Evonne and Elliot Schnitzer Family Jewish History Department Chair at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.
This article is reprinted with permission of The Lion’s Tale, the student newspaper of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. The original article can be found at https://lionstale.org/5109/opinion/to-solve-the-conflict-look-across-the-security-barrier/.