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.

Roads1.
Haley Luce, Jon Emont, and Bilal Tamimi survey a hill overlooking the settlements surrounding the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh.

Courtesy of Extend

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WEST BANK—Last year a friend and I started Extend, an organization that offers young Jewish Americans visiting Israel the opportunity to go on a five-day tour of the West Bank. Every year, tens of thousands of college-aged Jewish Americans visit Israel—on vacation, on programs like Birthright, for internships. We wanted these young people to have the opportunity to meet Palestinians during their time in the region, to learn about Palestinian history and day-to-day life, and explore Palestinian views on the conflict.

There are many programs that ferry young Jewish Americans to Israel, but not many take them the extra few miles into the West Bank. My co-founder Sam Sussman and I devised a fairly simple plan: Hire a bus and arrange a tour of the West Bank with Palestinian locals. First we put the word out to see if young Jewish Americans were interested in coming along. They were. In our first year we ran five tours and took nearly 60 young people into the Occupied Territories. Through running these tours, I’ve become convinced that our generation of Jewish Americans sees this conflict radically differently than our parents. We want to engage directly with Palestinians as players of equal standing in a tragic conflict. That is no consolation to the millions of civilians trapped in the current fighting, but perhaps it’s a tiny glimmer of hope.

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Organizing the tours proved relatively seamless. There were a few Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations with whom we wanted to work. We called them up and asked if they were interested in speaking with our group. Almost all said yes.

The tours started off in East Jerusalem, where we learned about Palestinian heritage in the city and spoke with experts about the municipality’s demolition of “illegally built” Palestinian homes. We headed into Hebron, where we were given tours of the city—Palestine’s largest, with a Jewish settlement directly in its center—led by Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli soldiers who are critical of the missions they were asked to carry out for the Israel Defense Forces.

Afterward we went into the settlement to meet the settlers themselves and learn about their lives and why this land is important to them. We spent the rest of the day with local Palestinian organizations. We listened to local Hebron residents tell us about how their city had been squeezed by the Occupation—Shahuda Street, once the busiest street in Hebron, had been closed to Palestinians, shops had been relocated or shut down. Later, we met with the leaders of protest movements in Nabi Saleh and Bil’in, and spoke with Palestinian businesspeople and entrepreneurs about the challenges of starting a business under the Occupation. Speaking with Military Court Watch, a legal organization that monitors the IDF’s detention of Palestinian children, we learned about the separate West Bank legal systems for Palestinians and Israelis, and how Palestinians who are accused of crimes are tried in military, not civilian, courts. We talked about the future and how our speakers expected the situation would evolve.

The most compelling moments of the tour, however, were the ones we couldn’t plan. On one tour of Hebron, a Palestinian man who was trying to sell the group trinkets was detained by Israeli soldiers. When a student asked how long the man would be detained, the Israeli soldier said, “For as long as we think he should be.”

There is no easy way to summarize how young Jewish Americans react to spending time in Palestinian communities. The students who come with us tend to enter the West Bank curious and skeptical and leave much the same. They aren’t naïve, and they aren’t extremely shocked when they hear criticism of Israel. Often participants will discuss how the debates about Israel’s conduct—detention of detainees without trials, military overreaction to terror attacks, racial and religious profiling—mirror post-9/11 debates that still haven’t been resolved in the United States. The debates in the West Bank may feel more urgent, but they are not unfamiliar.

The Palestinians we meet are uniformly gracious, serving us sweet tea and pita bread, and handling pointed questions with aplomb. Many Palestinians we work with have told me that they have complex emotions about chatting with Jewish groups from the United States. On the one hand, they are grateful we are coming and listening to their stories. They understand that for many of our participants, deciding to spend five days in the West Bank is a brave step, and one that may put them at odds with portions of their communities back home. They are pragmatic and want to communicate their message widely. On the other hand, many Palestinian speakers say—understandably—that they wish their civil rights weren’t at all dependent on how Jewish American twentysomethings judge their situation. They long for a day when they won’t have to plead their case to well-intentioned people—Jewish or non-Jewish—who possess political power but will never fully understand their reality.

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