Before flying off to Israel a couple weeks ago, I went to hear journalist Peter Beinart speak. I asked him how young, liberal American Jews should engage the kind of â€œuncomfortable Zionismâ€ he prescribed in his famous June article. â€œTo connect to the people in Israel who share your values, you know?â€ Beinart replied. â€œTo be confident in your values, and to reach out to those Israelis who share them and are trying under very, very difficult circumstances to live those same values.â€
I arrived in Israel a few days later and began reaching out to those Israelis who share my values. I did this in large part through a network provided by J Street U, the American embodiment–in my unbiased opinion–of young, liberal, uncomfortable Zionism.
I met with Ehud Uziel, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the countryâ€™s largest human rights organization. Ehud is a soft-spoken, warm young man who discussed the need to educate the public. In the last decade, according to Ehud, the situation in Israel has become one of skepticism, of despair, of fear. â€œAnd justifiably so, after all of the attacks of the last decade.â€ However, he said, this situation has led to a kind of blindness about what is happening on the other side, the extremely difficult reality that exists there, and the terrible violations of Palestinian human rights. The same frustrations were expressed by the representatives from Bâ€™Tselem and from Rabbis for Human Rights, two groups that focus on human rights within the Occupied Territories. Education, as Ehud discussed, and as I firmly believe, is integral to generating positive, peace-oriented action.
With the goal of learning in mind, I participated in two tours that presented a picture of different scenery than that shown on the usual Birthright beat. The first was with Breaking the Silence in the areas in and around Hebron and South Hebron, and the second was a tour of East Jerusalem with an organization called Ir Amim. Both tours were eye-opening. The tour in the Hebron area was shocking in how it highlighted the methodical nature of the disenfranchisement and segregation that supports the Israeli occupation. I would recommend to anyone interested in the conflict, or in Israel, to tour the West Bank and see the products of an occupation which often feels a thousand miles removed from this side of the green line.
My tour of East jerusalem refuted a number of myths that our guide said â€œare holding Jerusalem captive.â€ For example, the concept of a united Jerusalem is not based on the historical, biblical Jerusalem. The municipal post-1967 borders annexed a number of Palestinian villages that had never before been part of the city. And Jerusalem is already divided. The status of many in the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem is appalling, from residents losing their residency status upon returning from abroad to villages severed in two by the security barrier -which snakes far from the green line in parts of the city. And then there is Sheikh Jarrah.
Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem where a number of Palestinian residents have received eviction orders from the Israeli government. These families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah for decades. However, based on antiquated documents from the Ottoman period, an American-funded settler organization called the Nahlat Shimon International has â€œsubmitted legal petitions against the residents.â€ Three families have been evicted from their homes to make room for Jewish Israeli settlers. These evictions are morally appalling and set a problematic political precedent: There is another sizable group that agitates for their legal right to return to properties owned before 1948, despite the fact that the people living in the houses have been there for decades.
The Israeli public is not sitting by passively. Following the Ir Amim tour, I met with a large group of Israeli demonstrators, on their way to the weekly Friday protest in Sheikh Jarrah. Hundreds of Jews and Palestinians gather every week in solidarity against the evictions and for peace. The demonstration was thrumming with energy, with passion, with a recognition of the desperate need for change. The Israeli peace movement is not dead, it has just taken on a new name, and found a new location. The peace movement in Israel may have been decimated by the failure of the peace process in 2000, but it is rebuilding itself through educators, tour guides, organizers and demonstrators. I could not think of a better way for those of us who support Israel and peace to strengthen our own activism than to reach out and connect with our comrades on the ground so we can work together for a better, more just and more peaceful future.
Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem and is the President of the National Student Board of J Street U. He is a rising senior at Middlebury College in Vermont.