American Jews are familiar with the Israeli narrative. But the country is home to two narratives, and until there is acknowledgement of that, peace can be only a distant hope.
My philanthropy work focuses on issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli community and developing a shared society for all people in the region.
That is why I was among the 40 of the 475 members of the Oct. 14-22 CommUNITY Mission to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who were passengers on the “Israeli and Palestinian Relationship Bus,” which went on a one-day trip to sites in the West Bank.
Our guide was Riman Barakat, a board member of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, a nonprofit think-tank that sponsors peace-building actions and advocacy.
We went first went to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, with the aim of gaining an understanding of the perceptions and grievances of the people living there.
It is a small city (population: about 57,000) in the West Bank, crowded with well-kept apartment buildings, offices, schools, and mosques contrasting with littered streets. As impressive as Ramallah is, the visit made me worry about the idea of a two-state solution, since the most elaborate structure we saw was built to commemorate a killer. The Yasser Arafat Museum has striking architecture, a beautiful landscape — and exhibits showcasing hatred of Israel and its injustice toward the Palestinian people. This message seems to convey that peace is certainly not in the offing and signals a dismal future for the two-state solution.
But in Ramallah, we also heard from Dr. Amal Jadou, the Palestinian assistant minister of foreign affairs for Europe. “Amal” means hope in Arabic, and Jadou gave me just that.
Born in a refugee camp near Bethlehem and well educated in American universities, she said she is inspired by the challenges of living in a patriarchal society and under Israeli occupation.
We visited a place representing a remarkable vision of what may be a future for Palestine — Rawabi, a $1.4 billion planned city. Plans call for housing for 40,000 upwardly mobile people, with buildings for living, working, and culture.
Its Q Center (Qatar contributed two-thirds of the construction funds) is a public square flanked by office towers, luxury shops, cafes, a cinema, and tiled pedestrian walkways. There is a fully equipped sports park and a large Roman-style amphitheater for concerts and shows. There will be additional schools, a hospital, a hotel, and a nightclub. The mosque under construction will have a capacity for 2,000 worshippers.
The emergence of Rawabi is making it possible to aspire to a good life in Palestine, in contrast to a moribund economy in the rest of the West Bank. The hope is that the city will form the economic backbone of Palestine and serve as a model for development in the new state.
Of course, we also heard about inter-Palestinian conflicts and about their striving for independence and modernity versus the daily dependence on Israel.
While most of Rawabi is in Palestinian Authority-controlled territory, it is reached by passing through Israeli military-controlled territory. Israel built the access road and must grant annual approval for its use, a continuous issue. Israel also grants approval for the city’s water and electricity. Water has long been a prickly issue, primarily due to pushback from the settlers’ movement communities established by Israel on lands within the Palestinian territories. To some, the road rights, water, and electricity are considered normalization with Israel, and until contracts were settled, there were delays in selling units in Rawabi.
Next to Rawabi is the Jewish settlement of Ateret, which, from the Palestinian perspective, can become a suburb of Rawabi in a Palestinian state.
We also visited the winery run by the east Jerusalem Jewish community of Pisgat Zeev, founded in 1982 by a group of young religious families. In 2008 the winery, where we ate lunch, was moved to a spot that’s a six-minute drive from Jerusalem, and beyond the 1967 Green Line. Our waiter, originally from Teaneck, lives nearby and carries a pistol, telling us about his fears of living with Arabs.
So we saw the labors and fruits stemming from the multiple narratives of the Land of Israel. A pessimist might see two competing stories that will never allow for reconciliation.
But I’m an optimist. I saw that lasting peace is a shared dream, and that now, more than ever, we need to talk to and hear each other — and to take a deeper look at ourselves. We must be determined to achieve positive change and take a long view of what needs to be done. Pessimism leads to defeat, optimism to success. One person can inspire many others.
Phyllis Bernstein lives in Westfield. A member of the Global Connections committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, she is a founding cochair of its Arab-Israeli committee.