This past February I went to Israel for a week with Write On for Israel, a competitive two-year leadership training and Israel engagement program for high school students sponsored by NJJN and its sister publication, The New York Jewish Week. In this program, we learned about current events related to Israel and the wider Middle East and how to navigate complicated conversations about Israel, especially on college campuses.
The purpose of this trip was to hear the different narratives of Israel. Often, the situation is only painted as being between Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians, but it is so much more complex than that.
Throughout the week, we participated in a diverse variety of activities, ranging from meeting with top journalists and authors, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commander, a Druze family, a Palestinian activist, a Supreme Court justice, government officials, and Israeli-Jewish and Arab teenagers. These experiences presented us with a wide spread of opinions from different groups.
Several people we spoke to, including authors and journalists Yossi Klein Halevi, Khaled Abu Toameh, and Micah Goodman, had views that supported Israel, but also challenged parts of it at the same time. All three of these speakers were very informative and supportive of working toward a peaceful solution.
Our group visited a Druze family who were gracious enough to invite us into their home to talk about their experiences. The Druze have always been very loyal to Israel, and the passing of the nation-state law in May 2018 (which stated that national rights belong to the Jewish people) made the community feel as if they were being alienated. One of the family’s daughters, Rana, said that she is “a minority within a minority within a minority within a minority.” She said she feels like they’re being forgotten, even after everything they have done for Israel.
We visited an IDF base and saw them practicing a tank drill. It was really cool to see, but so as not to reveal potentially valuable military secrets, I’m not allowed to say anything more about it. Later that day, we stood on top of a hill, less than a mile away from Syria. The only thing in between us was an expansive grassy field and a fence. But I felt safe nonetheless. Yaakov, an IDF captain who had accompanied us that day, pointed out two towns on the border. He proceeded to tell us that up until six months before, one of those villages was occupied by ISIS, the other by al Qaeda. You used to be able to see rockets flying from one town to the other in the very spot where we were standing.
I found that the time we spent in Judea and Samaria was the most surprising. Despite all of the stories I’ve heard, we sailed through the checkpoint and into what had always been described as a war zone. It was a nice day, and the sun shone on the beautiful green valleys where the matriarch Rachel had walked, thousands of years before.
Perhaps the most chilling thing about it was as we drove past a bus station, our guide told us that it was where three boys — Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’er, and Naftali Frenkel — had been kidnapped nearly five years ago. Even more jarring, if possible, was driving right past the spot where my friend’s cousin, Ezra Schwartz, was killed just a few years before while on his gap year in Israel.
It was weird to drive right past places where terrorists had acted out of hate, and even stranger that I still felt completely safe. I felt the same later on when we were taking a small hike near a settlement, as if doing something as simple as that in a place like this was ordinary. We walked past a few women and their children, and I exchanged a “salaam alaikum” with them, never feeling the sense of hatred, fear, or animosity that the media so often portrays.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that there is never any fear of hatred in that area on the west bank of the Jordan River. All communities are faced with conflicts of various types.
Another amazing experience was when we met with Israeli-Arab teens from Baqa al-Gharbiya, an Arab city which is northwest of Netanya, sitting right on the edge of the Green Line and separated from Baqa al-Sharqiya, which was once a part of the same city. We met with four girls around my age, Salam, Suma, Tasneem, and Afnan. They all go to school or are pursuing careers. Afnan listens to hip hop. Tasneem’s favorite ice cream flavor is caramel and she likes American actor Zac Efron. Suma likes to go to the gym and finds school boring. Things that my friends and I do and can relate to.
We also went to one of the Arab elementary schools where we spoke to some of the teachers and met some of the younger students, who prepared a small presentation in English to welcome us. Immediately, a group of young girls introduced themselves and asked me questions. They were also excited to play with us for a few minutes at the end of our visit.
All of the people I met in Baqa were amazing; however, I really bonded with Tasneem and I’m still in contact with her. We don’t speak as often as I’d like, since we’re both busy, but I wonder how her job in the pharmacy in the Jewish city is. I wonder if people are treating her differently because she wears a hijab. I wonder if she’s going to college to study diplomacy
As Tasneem and I pursue our plans in life, we remain hopeful for a peaceful future, where everyone can coexist peacefully, and where we can share our customs and cultures. After all, we have similar hopes, even if some of our beliefs may differ.
We also had the opportunity to volunteer at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) in Holon. SACH treats free of charge children with heart conditions from developing countries. All of the kids were so adorable, and despite the fact that they were preparing for, or just had, major heart surgery, they all had big smiles as well. SACH’s mission is similar to that of Operation Good Neighbor on the Syrian border: to help others, no matter their race, religion, nationality, or citizenship status.
Despite its complexities with many diverse communities, it’s all Israel, our home, and I’m grateful to the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey for helping to make it possible for me to participate in this amazing
Sarah Schildkraut is a senior at John P. Stevens High School in Edison. She will be attending Nova Southeastern University in Florida in the fall.