I have traveled to Israel twice thus far. The first time, in September 2010, I was naive and bushy-tailed, knowing little more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than what the American media reported. When I saw the blue-and-white Israeli flag flapping in the wind at the end of the Jordanian frontier, I felt unexplainably giddy.
My excitement had, it seemed, been misplaced. Indeed when I left Israel, I practically sprinted back into Jordan — just 24 hours of paranoia, questioning and seemingly endless security checkpoints had done me in! The ordeal hadn’t made me anti-Israel per se, but I did get the impression that I was missing part of the story.
Return to Israel
I devoted much of the year after my first trip to Israel to researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all angles. I watched and read as much material as I could find, from debates between young Palestinians and Israelis, to documentaries, to literally hours of raw footage. I was frequently disgusted, usually by the actions of the Israelis, but I still desperately wanted to return to Israel for some reason.
So this past September, that’s exactly what I did, albeit with a bit more forethought. I flew into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport the second time, for example, in hopes I would avoid a situation like the one I’d encountered a year earlier. I was detailed and scrutinized because I had Arab nation stamps in my passport.
I departed Israel the second (and, thus far, last) time feeling even more conflicted than I had the first, with many more questions than answers. Two stood out above the others. First and foremost, do you have to be pro-Israel to visit Israel? And does being pro-Israel or pro-Israeli automatically make you anti-Palestine or anti-Palestinian?
Israel and Palestine
When I left Israel the first time, I was pro-Palestine; when I left the second time, I had also become pro-Israel. I suppose you could say, douchey as it sounds, that I am pro-truth.
The truth of the matter is that the Israeli government and military have been committing atrocious crimes against the Palestinians almost since the founding of the state of Israel. From the initial expulsions of Arabs in 1948 to the white phosphorous shells that fall on today’s Gaza, the Israel vs. Palestine narrative to be one that veers almost without fail toward ethnic cleansing.
But it’s also true that, regardless of their motivation, certain Palestinian factions have promoted and continue to promote terrorism toward Israel. My friend Lior in Tel Aviv recounted to me in sobering detail the store of a bus that exploded at the bottom of his building when he was a child in the 1990s. Although suicide bombings are significantly less common today, hundreds of rockets are nonetheless launched at southern Israel every day.
Goliath and David
Of course, the vast majority of Palestinian rockets fired at the Jewish state are intercepted by Israel’s state-of-the-art missile defense shield. This reflects another truth: Unified in mission and large in number, the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is almost immeasurably more powerful and able to defend itself than even the most organized Palestinian militia groups. The Palestinians stand essentially no chance; they have nothing to lose and even less to gain. Palestine is David and knows this; Israel is Goliath, but believes itself to be David and fights accordingly.
Even knowing this, I love Israel. I especially love balmy and lush Tel Aviv, which is a theme park of sorts, a hedonistic Disneyland Beach resort in the volatile Middle East. Its existence is ironic; it is perhaps the most laissez-faire city in the world, tightly encircled by the world’s most efficient, lethal privacy fence.
I love how the people who live there strut and stroll along the street with a “carpe diem” outlook born as much from a genuine love for their lives and for their country as because they believe, perhaps foolishly, that tomorrow might not come. I love how little most young people seem to care about Judiasm or “being Jewish.”
I love feeling like I’m in Miami as I walk along the Mediterranean. I love the sidewalk cafés of King George Street and Rothschild Boulevard, and being able to stop and kiss as many handsome strangers as my lips can kiss if they wave at me the right way when they pass by. I love walking 15 minutes down the coast to Jaffa and feeling as if I stepped into another world. I love Israel; and I love the Israelis even more than that.
5,000 Years of Hatred
My inherent difficulty with processing the conflict, mentally and emotionally, is the fact that it has been made into a paradigm. Commentators and pundits speak about “this side” and “that side” as if there are only two viewpoints, two perspectives, with an unspoken understanding that one is right and one is wrong; we just don’t know which is which.
In Jordan in 2010, after my aforementioned 24 terrifying hours in Israel, I listened to tales of torture and terror from my friend Najwa’s family. Her aunt recalled being forcibly removed from her own home in her own village, where Jews and Arabs had lived together peacefully for centuries before the arrival of the Zionists. A family friend gave me a first-hand account of segregated roads in the West Bank, and how it took him 12 hours to travel a few kilometers to the city where he was born because of the sheer number of checkpoints.
Immediately after entering Israel the second time, I climbed into a cab with a gay Israeli who had been on my flight from Athens, who would periodically caress the Star of David around his neck. “I’m not a practicing Jew,” he emphasized, as most young Israelis had a tendency to do, “but being Israeli is all I have.
“The conflict,” he continued, as the taxi stopped along the curb, “isn’t only about what’s going on today. It’s about five thousand years of hatred. My love for Israel is the only antidote for that.”
He handed the drive a 100-shekel note, kissed me gently on the cheek and bid me farewell before he slammed the door. As the cab sped off, I wondered if I was even capable of truly understanding what he meant.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.