Why Young Jewish Americans Should Explore the West Bank by Bus

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 1 2014 1:42 PM

The West Bank by Bus

Last year, two young Jewish Americans began leading educational tours of the troubled Palestinian territory. But their ambitions are bigger than bus trips.

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There are a few things we hope all of our participants will take away with them. Most can explain why Jerusalem is a city of extraordinary importance to both Jews and Palestinians, and how the 1948 war meant something very different for Palestinians than it did for Israelis. This knowledge allows participants to sensitively collaborate with Jewish and Palestinian activists when they return home. Many of our participants, when they return to their universities, have taken leadership roles in organizations that work to create an autonomous future for both groups. Others have given talks about their time in the West Bank at their local synagogues, or have decided to study abroad in Israel and join local organizations dedicated to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Roads2.
Manal Tamimi chats with an Extend tour next to a Palestinian flag in her home.

Courtesy of Extend

These are awful times in Israel and Palestine. Gaza has been bombed to rubble; Israeli life is regularly interrupted by rocket and mortar fire. Hamas has proven extraordinary belligerent, and its rhetoric is toxic. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu made clear, during a press conference on the fourth day of fighting, that he does not support any commonly understood version of the two-state solution—that Israel will always maintain “security control” of the West Bank. A long-term political solution to the conflict seems impossibly far away.

Some good news amid all this is how active members of the Jewish American community’s youngest generation have been in reaching out to Palestinian partners and affirming their belief that violence is no solution. Last year saw a proliferation of grassroots Jewish movements, spearheaded by young Jewish Americans, designed to bring Palestinian perspectives into the American-Jewish conversation about Israel and Palestine.

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Open Hillel is a movement that agitates for college Hillels—Jewish centers that host Jewish celebrations and events—to allow Palestinians who support boycotts against Israel to speak at Hillel events. It’s already had some success; during the last academic year a number of college Hillels declared themselves “Open Hillels” and rejected the restrictions placed on who is allowed to speak. In response, Hillel’s CEO has called for a review of its partnership guidelines, acknowledging that policies “haven’t been updated or modernized.”

When the most recent fighting started, a group representing young Jewish Americans called If Not Now, When? sprang into action in New York City, publicly reading the names of the Palestinians and Israelis who have been killed in the latest round of fighting. In Israel, All That’s Left, a grassroots anti-occupation group formed largely by young Americans living in Israel (disclosure: I’m a member), has actively protested the violence.

The American Jewish community still has incredibly far to go in incorporating Palestinian perspectives into its discussion about the future of Israel and Palestine. Statements from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued over the past few weeks consistently reaffirm American Jewish solidarity with the suffering people of Israel, but neglect the suffering of Palestinians, as if the fighting is exclusively one side’s fault, or one side’s deaths are more tragic.

Nonetheless, I believe that the gap in views between my generation and my parents’ is bridgeable. When I spoke about Extend this past February at Temple Israel, the Conservative synagogue in New Jersey where I was raised to love Israel as a child, I was petrified about how the congregants would interpret my activism. I sat in the pews, toward the back of the room, nervous, feeling like it was my bar mitzvah all over again. As people filed in, my mom whispered things in my ear like, “She really is not going to agree with you,” or “I know that family. They’re not going to like what you have to say.”

But afterward most of the congregants who showed up to services that Friday evening seemed to agree that Jewish Americans didn’t know nearly enough about Palestinian life, and that it was to everyone’s detriment. One person my mom insisted would not be sympathetic to my talk came up and congratulated me afterword. She told me that her niece had lived in Israel and spent time with Palestinians in the West Bank. She came back disturbed by the separate legal systems and convinced that Palestinians needed a state of their own. The niece helped change her entire family’s views of the Occupation. It’s a story I’ve heard many times since launching Extend.

I think a reckoning is coming. Young Jewish Americans grew up with a different Middle East, one where Israel’s military was dominant and American hawkishness caused terrible hardship. It seems obvious to many of us that any long-term solution to the conflict is going to involve accepting Palestinians as equal partners. It won’t be long before mainstream Jewish organizations will start to listen. But even if they don’t, the current violence will eventually let up. Then there will be more buses, and more opportunities to connect and improve the situation.

Jon Emont has written for Slate, Tablet, and the American Prospect. He's a co-founder of Extend, which offers immersive tours of the West Bank to young Jewish-Americans interested in exploring Palestinian life.

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