image from Huffington Post
A personal confession:
Sometime in the last ten years, amidst eight years of George W. Bush, natural and political disasters of all kinds, and my own selfish pursuits, I have pushed thoughts of Israel and Palestine to the far corners of my mind. It's a luxury, really, to live far enough away from Jerusalem or Ramallah to justify a lack of action or critical response to events happening on the other side of the globe.
Here's the thing about the Middle East, though: no matter who you are, no matter how you identify or what religious texts you read as child, there's something intensely personal about what these countries represent, and how their very being shapes the world. I was raised in an interfaith family but attended Jewish Sunday school for years, though I've never properly learned Hebrew (not for lack of opportunities; Spanish just caught my eye first). In many Jewish communities, my agnostic-at-best understanding of the world defies the religion's central tenet: that there is one god, and he/she/it is our god. I'm not even certain if I should capitalize the word.
I spent a summer in Israel in 2000, before Bush, before 9/11, before a lot of things happened. Those six weeks rewrote the way I saw the world, not so much in terms of the need for a Jewish state, but because for the first time, I saw the consequences of having one Jewish state that existed around and on top of a country that has never really been its own. I was torn between instincts. I loved and still love the idea of Israel, both because it was a haven for some of my relatives, and because the feeling of the place itself is magical, transformative. It is a place to love. All the same, it is hard to love a place so defined by contradictions, a place where Palestinian families end up to submitting to the rules and regulations of Israeli settlements. What boundaries are safe to cross? When will they be?
My feelings about Israel were further complicated as a freshman in college. The United States declared war on Iraq that year, and every weekend I'd attend huge peace rallies in downtown Santa Barbara. Every week the peace parades were interrupted by splinter pro-Palestine groups, not organizations as much as clumps of undergraduates clinging to a cause. I always felt a bit threatened, though at the end of the day, I had no more credentials to defend Israel than they had to attack it.
Last night I attended a presentation at Congregation Bet Haverim about the OneVoice Movement in Israel and Palestine. The organization was created in 2002, and its mission is to "amplify the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward a two-state solution." Unlike other peace organizations in the Middle East, OneVoice has two parallel groups: one in Palestine and one in Israel. Both groups rely on a team of youth volunteers who devise creative campaigns and initiatives to involve community members.
The organization itself is impressive, but more than anything I was amazed by the presentations given by Bashar Shweiki and Tomer Avital. Shweiki is a Palestinian small business owner whose family business was co-opted by an Israeli settlement, and Avital is an Israeli journalist who seeks to mobilize his friends and neighbors in efforts toward peace. Both men are about my age, both were eloquent and compassionate, and were respectful of opposing opinions. I could tell that they were here because they wanted to be here, that they believed in the movement for peace because it is a vital and necessary part of their everyday lives.
Avital described a recent initiative he and his fellow OneVoice members employed in Israel: they created a series of "parking tickets" that they distributed on random cars that issued "fines" for apathy and failure to act. The tickets were cunning imitations of government-issue tickets. Listening to them speak, I felt a stirring I have not recognized in years: someone should issue me a ticket. There's something I should do. I don't know what it is yet, but maybe this is a step.
Maybe this right here - maybe this is the first step?