A reflection after Harvard College Israel Trek, a spring break trip I was fortunate enough to attend.
I’m back at Harvard now. It’s surreal and a little nostalgic to think that, rather than flurries of snow outside, we had desert heat bearing down on us just two weeks ago. Rather than red brick rising up around us and slush at our feet, we stood amidst pale Jerusalem stone and cats mewling on the streets.
It’s not that I’m ‘not prepared’ to be back at school. I’m just craving a little more — more of what I was able to see, hear, feel, taste, touch and engage with over spring break. The Trek, made me appreciate how much there is out there in the world, and how interesting it all is. This should be a simple revelation, but it seems that every time I travel, I’m knocked over with the force of this sentiment as if I were learning it for the first time. (Or maybe gaining a deepening understanding of something feels almost the same as learning it afresh.) Two hops away by plane, I found incredibly diverse, rich lives humming away. Lives that I could only attempt to get close to and learn about during our short 10 days there, and ones that I found extremely difficult to define or generalize about.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that things weren’t cohesive and tidy and my summary is not cohesive and tidy, and that’s just how it is. Israel/Palestine is not just a ‘conflict’ or a ‘situation’. People live there, yes, despite everything. They have to. The Israel-Palestinian conflict has been a daily reality for decades, residing in the backs of minds and wearing its way into attitudes in both obvious and imperceptible ways. But then, it is a daily reality, so people grow around it and create realms outside of it.
There are beautiful, straight-up people with uplifting attitudes that I miss, and a tapestry of landscapes that should belong to five different countries. There are Purim festivities where strangers will amiably compliment your purple tiger face paint, and hilariously absurd stories passed around of old Russian grandmothers and their American vacuum cleaners.
I wrestled with and attempted to reconcile everything that I saw. Who are you? What’s your story? Why do you say the things that you do, and why are things the way that they are? How does the conflict play a role in this? Why does the conflict not play a role in this? It was a week of questioning, considering, evaluating, and running out of time. But even if I could have poked into every single speaker’s life, and dissected every person’s stories, the kind of satisfaction permitted by fitting a general solution, a thesis, or a conclusion—of the kind we are taught to search for in class—would still have eluded me.
Even in everyday life, there exist things that seem contradictory and incompatible. Israel is simultaneously a place for growing numbers of ultraorthodox Jews who decline to push elevator buttons on Shabbat, a place where gay pride flags flutter off Tel Aviv balconies, and a place where 19-year-old military kids run the most popular radio station, often using the airwaves to criticise the military itself. We visited a school for children of refugees and migrant workers, where the girls’ athletic team proudly competed for Israel at the Schools Olympic Games, despite difficulty getting through international borders, because the country they represented did not even permit them their requisite papers.
The West Bank had its own surprises. I cannot deny the unease I felt driving through checkpoints into zones ominously marked A, B, or C, noticing rubbish littering the landscape, people with intimidatingly large guns staring at our bus, and settlements in the distance. Just having an inkling of the degree of conflict and anguish that has occurred and is occurring over the land I was on was unnerving. But it would be inaccurate to paint this as the whole picture. As we clambered off the bus in Ramallah, a sprawling lunch awaited us at a large, modern hotel, with beautiful Palestinian art on the walls. What kinds of travellers keep hotels like this in business?
And The Conflict itself — well, again, I didn’t walk away with a fleshed-out solution. Of course not. Old questions went unanswered and new questions arose. (For example, I’m still wondering how Israel can navigate being simultaneously Jewish and democratic.) Will signing a negotiation be healing in the way we hope? How much identity is tied up in hurt? Can we imagine Israel without a conflict with Palestine? Can we imagine Palestine without a conflict with Israel? Honestly, I’m not sure if this trip made me more or less inclined towards a career in international relations. Sometimes, political leadership and negotiation processes can be — simply put — the absolute pits, and sometimes, throwing more effort and people at a problem doesn’t seem to have an effect.
Perhaps my most valuable questions were not directed at the things I saw and the people I met. I also experienced uneasy moments of questioning myself. Upon arrival at a picturesque winery in Golan Heights, we learned of the contested nature of the region - which also happens to possess conditions described as “perfect” for winemaking. The fifty of us proceeded to taste and enjoy the products of vineyards that could only be planted after 250 burned-out tanks were cleared from the landscape after the Valley of Tears Battle. The grapes that grew over and upon the sites of battle and bloodshed coloured my beverage, and my perceptions. The wine-tasting experience was a giggly, delicious, entertaining affair — should I feel guilty for having fun? How should I conduct myself, with the knowledge that I have?
So, I have no verdicts. I did not experience the satisfaction of developing a neat, unified opinion about Israel. But then, all the most interesting and worthwhile questions to think about in life don’t have solid answers. Too often we are encouraged to quickly form opinions about a text we only just skimmed, a show we just saw, or the person we just met. Not having answers forces you to keep engaging, so perhaps arriving at answers shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of proposing questions. One thing I did learn for sure is that all of this starts and ends with people — and here I refer less to the complications of people than to the people you meet that inspire you (I think all fifty of us can say this about our tour guide Amir), the people that dance on table-tops beside you and the people that have three-hour dinner conversations with you. Their importance is one conclusion I can count on.