Tel Aviv is enchanting. As I wandered through the artistic, sun-soaked streets of Neve Tzedek, walked on the glistening beaches of the Mediterranean, and meandered through its bustling downtown on my most recent visit to Israel, I became entranced. With its balance of relaxation and excitement, I couldn’t help but be lured in by the magic of the city.
However, I wasn’t in Israel for vacation. I was there as staff with Americans for Peace Now on its study tour to Israel and the West Bank to learn about the complexity of achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Usually, the tour is based in Jerusalem, a contentious city that many consider the epicenter of the conflict. Though staying in Tel Aviv distanced us from the heart of the issue, it taught me an important lesson about the attitude of Israelis toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how difficult it is to persuade the Israeli public that the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip threatens Israel’s existence.
In Tel Aviv one does not need to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tel Aviv is a bubble that is not affected by this issue (except in times of war). It was after having a few conversations with my Israeli friend Yonatan that the notion of Tel Aviv being a bubble was reinforced. He first met me before the tour began.
Our conversation briefly touched upon the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and then turned to police brutality in the U.S. Yonatan didn’t seem interested in talking about the actions of his own government but when we got to police brutality he began speaking passionately. “How could the police kill so many innocent black people? It’s horrible.” As I agreed with him it struck me that he did not make any connection between police brutality in the U.S. and the way in which Palestinians are treated by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank (never mind Israel’s use of power in the Gaza Strip).
I saw Yonatan six days later. Six days in which I had toured East Jerusalem, met with Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, and with MK Ayman Odeh, who heads the new joint Arab Knesset list. I traveled to Hebron in the West Bank, met with the mayor of the Israeli settlement Efrat, toured the impressive, new Palestinian planned city of Rawabi, met in Ramallah with Palestinian leaders, including chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, spoke with US Consul General in Jerusalem Michael Ratney, and met with Israeli peace activists from APN’s sister organization Shalom Achshav.
When I met Yonatan after these six days I felt more comfortable talking to him about Israel’s challenges. It struck me that he did not know basic facts about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. I told him about our visit to Hebron and the fact that Palestinians aren’t allowed to walk on certain streets and that about 1,800 Palestinian-owned shops in downtown Hebron have been closed for years because of the presence of Israeli settlers there. He immediately replied, “There are no Israelis living in Hebron.” “Yes, there are. And Israeli soldiers are stationed there to protect them. I saw it with my own eyes,” I responded.
I am not suggesting that most Israelis lack basic knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But to me, Yonatan represents an average Israeli citizen and I can’t help but think how frustratingly challenging it is to mobilize Israelis to end the occupation if educated, progressive people like him are apathetic to and unaware of the reality that Palestinians face in the West Bank, under Israeli occupation, just a half-hour drive from Yonatan’s Tel Aviv home.
My exchange with Yonatan was frustrating but not a cause for despair. In fact, what I saw and heard on this visit only strengthened my commitment to Israel and to helping it rid itself of the occupation. My enchantment with Tel Aviv speaks to the wonder that Israel is – a vibrant, start-up nation that has so much to offer to the world. However, without solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution, Israel will become an internationally-isolated pariah state, which is neither truly Jewish nor a democracy.
Katherine Cunningham is a former Executive and Program Assistant at Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of Shalom Achshav, Israel’s preeminent peace movement.