The feeling I had last year, stepping off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport is still strong—Israel feels like home. Leaving here includes planning to come back, the next time to focus on studying Hebrew. I am feeling quite torn, and the only experience I’ve had that comes close to the same impact was when the (then) most wonderful person in my life left for Greece and I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.
I really don’t know why this particular place on the planet is drawing me so intensely.
This visit, unlike my first, was one where I was not really a tourist. I did two short term volunteer placements through Skilled Volunteers for Israel. While primarily focused on helping baby boomers from the Jewish community find a way to contribute to Israel by arranging placements with a range of non-profits, they welcomed my application and worked hard to find suitable placements for me.
My intent to combine volunteering with studying at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem fell through due to lack of enrolment in the course I wanted to take.
The two placements were very different. At Israel Elwyn I was primarily a compassionate presence within a programme for intellectually challenged adults. It had been decades since I’ve done work with such vulnerable people. I had been worried that my many years of working within the co-operative and non-profit world and primarily with well educated, highly skilled individuals would have created barriers that would be hard to overcome. But that provided to not be the case. There was mutual comfort with each other. My role was definitely not that of a therapist but as someone from the broader world who was spending time with those all too often forgotten. My lack of Hebrew wasn’t a barrier. My lack of training wasn’t a barrier. My not being Jewish wasn’t a barrier. Being a patient person who could smile was sufficient.
Among the things I noticed at Elwyn was that there were a substantive number of followers of Islam on staff. From women wearing hijab to men at prayer, to an outsider it looked like Israel Elwyn was a place where practical and effective compassion trumped religious and cultural divisions. It was also the only place where I saw this barrier crossed in any significant way, unlike my last visit where it seemed quite common place and was exemplified by watching young people from the Jewish and Arab communities playing a pick up game of soccer.
The placement with the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations was a completely different experience. I specifically focused on trying to get more groups committed to participate in a fair tourism project. This is an effort to create an on-line catalogue for those organising trips to Israel/Palestine in order to encourages “tourists to engage with multiple narratives, and creates an encounter between visitors and representatives of the local population, both Jews and Arabs.” This was done primarily via computer. About 27 groups have agreed to participate so far, with the target being 30. This is an important initiative in the long term—those going on pilgrimages or group explorations to the middle east need to be encouraged to go beyond their comfort zone to find out more from the diverse voices arising from different communities in a troubled land.
While actually having a longer work week in Israel than I have in my normal life, I did have time to wander about Jerusalem. The place was far more tense than my last visit. There was a greater police and military presence even in Jewish neighbourhoods far from the Old City and the Green Line. Going into shopping centres involved having my backpack searched and going through a metal detector. In light of the car attacks some schools in Tel Aviv cancelled field trips to Jerusalem. On a day when I was planning to visit the Temple Mount and specifically the Dome of the Rock I was unable to do so because it was closed due to political tensions and threats of violence.
Even in the commercial heart of the Old City, the suk, there was definite worry brought about by a large drop in visitors and a dramatic drop in sales. It was my previous experience that many merchants would try hard to get passers by to enter their stores and, with so many tourists about in normal times, most stalls would have possible buyers moving in and out. One stall owner was a bit more persistent in trying to get me into his store, offering a glass of tea to enjoy while I browsed. My response was a bit of a surprise to him—I reminded him that I had visited his store with my wife about a year ago. We had gone in so she could look at the scarves and came out with a more expensive item. He laughed and offered “coffee, not tea, and conversation, not a sales pitch” until a paying customer came by. I was there over 20 minutes before someone else came by. He said it had been like that for months; there was a real decline in Israelis visiting the suk and fewer foreign visitors than normal. This meant a real decline in sales—something worrisome to those selling dry goods and metalwork, but a real crisis to the vendors of fresh meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, baked goods and other perishables.
Loss of tourism dollars has a ripple effect into various segments of the local service economy. Areas with already high youth unemployment find the problem growing. Pressure from the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement has resulted in the closing of some factories in the West Bank and having production shift to Israel or other countries, increasing unemployment in an area already having high unemployment.
Increased religious fundamentalism woven into conservative political movements is hardening positions across Israel/Palestine. Even groups founded to engage in constructive dialogue have, in some cases, become rigid advocates of either Israeli or Palestinian positions that seem set in stone. Individuals who have devoted many years to constructive engagement have been marginalised and, in some cases, accused of the crime of wanting to normalise things rather than promote the struggle for a Palestinian state on one side or compromising Israeli security on the other.
Petty harassment of Arabs is very real. As an example, in various trips involving taxis and going through check points, my Arab drivers were always asked for identification which was not the case with other drivers. Fear of violence was also very real, but cuts across all divisions. Even if not directly dealing with police and military security, the at times overwhelming presence of armed people is both a source of deeply felt tension and a reminder of the possibility of violence suddenly erupting on a bus or street corner or a place of worship.
Deliberate provocation by political leaders is a real problem, from Knesset members trying to change the dynamics around access to the temple mount to Palestinian Authority leaders calling those that have engaged in self-directed political violence martyrs to Islam. Those that are advocating for real and effective engagement are pushed aside or threatened for challenging such positions.
And yet, in the midst of conflict and tension, I kept finding hope. On a small scale when strangers provided directions or let me know of cultural events that crossed divisions, or on a larger scale such as when Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, spoke at a memorial for the victims of an Israeli attack on Arabs at Kafr Qasem, Israel isn’t limited by what might appear to dominate its image in the media. It is still a nation struggling define itself, a place that is truly a Jewish homeland and a land of Christian and Muslim and Druze and Baha’i and Samaritans and other spiritual traditions. It is a place with an elected leadership representing a wider political spectrum than many in the west are accustomed to. The full range of Judaism, from those that oppose the existence of the state of Israel to Messianic Jews, have a shared land where many such differences are open and irresolvable and part of the dialogue.
I am still puzzling out in my own mind what is it about Israel that makes me feel that it is home. None-the-less, it has become so to me. I’ll be returning to study Hebrew and returning again as a volunteer or in some other way be in Israel in a sustained and meaningful way. It is a land of peace and conflict and hope and despair—not unique in that regard—but it is a place that speaks intimately to me.