I have visited Israel dozens of times, but this month’s Israel Policy
Forum study mission with a group of Seattle activists created sensory
overload unlike anything I have experienced in the past.
First of all, the country remains essentially empty of tourists. I
visited areas which are usually filled with Americans and heard no English
around me, only Hebrew and Arabic.
Abandoned by foreign tourists, Israelis have undergone a personality
change. They have never been so friendly to the few foreigners who visit. In
the past, some shopkeepers in Jerusalem acted as if they were doing you a
favor. Now they radiate warmth and helpfulness, whether you purchase
something or not. On Jaffa Road, Israelis and Arabs competed to give
directions to a confused American.
There is an undertone of sadness, particularly in Jerusalem which once
prided itself on being “one city, undivided.” One morning I walked around
East Jerusalem and saw no Israelis except for a soldier or two. When I told
Israelis about my stroll to the other side of the city, they looked at me as
if I was crazy. “Why would you go there,” they asked.
The walls are back, at least psychologically, and those walls are often
as impermeable as the concrete ones going up outside the city. For me, this
is especially poignant. In 1968, I spent several months on Salah al-Din
Street, in the heart of East Jerusalem, as a member of a Jewish student
group. Today it is unimaginable that the Israelis would house Jewish
In Tel Aviv, a city which remains upbeat despite everything, young
soldiers are everywhere. The ones I saw weren't guarding anything; they were
at historic sites getting imbued with Zionist history as a part of basic
training. They look just like American high school kids (they are only 18).
Horsing around, flirting, singing along to hip-hop tunes on the radio, it is
painful to imagine that many of them will be in combat units in a few
And, despite all that we hear about growing resistance to army service,
virtually all Israeli teenagers will go. I asked our 17 year old cousin
whether he was nervous about going. A tall, handsome Orthodox kid, he
shrugged off the question. “I’ll do what I have to do,” he said. He said
that he hoped that he would not have to serve at checkpoints in the West
Bank and Gaza but that if he must, he must.
Our relatives, who came to Israel after the Holocaust, have, until now,
not had to worry about a son in the army. The first generation born in
Israel consisted of three daughters. But the second native born generation
includes several boys and their grandparents live in dread of the day they
will have to don their uniforms.
The mother of one told me that she was “sure when he was born that the
wars would be over by the time he was 18. And after Oslo, I even thought
that maybe he would not have to go into the army at all. Now I think that
even my grandchildren may not see peace.” She asked me why “the United
States doesn’t try to help anymore.”
The scene on the Palestinian side is just as depressing. Our group
visited the separation barrier Israel is building to defend itself from the
suicide bombers who have succeeded in taking 900 Israeli lives since 2000.
The segment in a neighborhood called Abu Dis, just outside of Jerusalem, is
a solid 30 foot concrete wall.
There is a part of it that is not solid concrete but more makeshift and
here Palestinian laborers were crossing home after work. They were crawling
and climbing through and over the wall. It was not easy but a whole line was
I went over to watch and a French camera crew asked me my impressions. I
told them that I understood why Israelis needed a wall and that, if it
adhered closely to the '67 lines, it could contribute not only to Israel's
security but to a real reduction in tensions. But, I added, it was deeply
troubling to see a neighborhood dissected. I also said that I felt badly for
these Palestinians who suddenly found themselves cut off from jobs, markets,
and schools. Innocent people are suffering." Then I returned to our bus.
Nothing I said was particularly exceptional, or so I thought. A young
Palestinian felt differently. In fact, having overheard what I said to the
journalists, he gathered up his courage and boarded our bus.
He asked if he could speak to the group, borrowing a microphone from our
Israeli guide. He told us that until hearing what I had said to the French
journalists, he had believed that all American Jews hate Palestinians and
lack any sympathy for them as fellow human beings. As a result, he hated all
But having heard one Jew empathize with the Palestinian plight, he had
changed his mind. He would never again hate “all Jews” nor would he continue
to believe that all Jews hate Palestinians.
He thanked me for changing his attitude and said he would "never forget
He then walked off the bus, leaving our group in shock and some near
I was left shaking. I had neither said nor done anything unusual and yet
this young man said that he was “changed forever” by my words. But I had
done nothing except express some empathy.
Apparently Palestinians are so unaccustomed to any show of compassion
from Jews (or anyone else?) that hearing a few words of sympathy is a
Something is terribly wrong. Young Israelis, like our cousin, are manning
checkpoints to guard their country against Palestinians who are walking
around with such hurt and anger that some do indeed become threats to
Israelis. Palestinians are watching Israelis build a wall to keep them out
and in some places to cage them in.
Can anyone possibly believe that walls alone can protect anyone against
burning hate and burning hurt that grows until it explodes? I’m not just
talking about the Palestinians either. Israelis too are in terrible pain.
In 1967, after Israel re-unified Jerusalem (East Jerusalem had been
governed by the Jordanians), Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered
the walls dividing the city to be torn down. He was told that it was
impossible; it would take months before the two peoples
– divided by walls of concrete and
walls of hatred for 19 years –
could safely mix.
Dayan gave the order anyway and two cities became one
– and one of the world’s most
Thirty-seven years later, the walls are back.