As my bus passed the Palestinian Refugee Camp of Dheisheh, I peered through its windows, straining to catch a glimpse of life behind the barbed wire. I always hoped that like the Christmas Day truce of 1914, when British and German Soldiers clambered out their trenches, exchanged cigarettes and played football, we could interrupt our conflict, meet and get to know one another a little.
My teenage fantasies were shattered by the First Intifada. As Palestinians hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails onto the road, nervous bus drivers, hoping to dodge the rocks, sped past the camp as fast as they could, and the walls surrounding the refugees were extended, making it barely possible to peep inside the camp.
Then came the Oslo Accords. Bypass roads were built to separate Jews from Palestinians, so we no longer traveled past the refugee camp. For us, it vanished.
Still, I never forgot my shock as the first rocks crashed against the windows of my bus, my curiosity about those who hurled them and the directive of former British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits that if the Palestinians are living in harsh conditions, then Jews should not leave it to terrorists to speak up for them; we should be the ones crying out for a fair settlement.
My Zionism and my Jewish beliefs compel me to believe that we should endlessly search for ways to live side by side the Palestinians.
Last week, accompanied by a Palestinian guide and interpreter, I toured the narrow, grimy streets of the Al-Arroub Refugee Camp, which is said to house around 10,000 Palestinians. My curiosity was matched by that of an ever-growing crowd on the streets. Not everyone welcomed the presence of a Zionist, Orthodox rabbi. "Why don't you go back to the Ukraine?" one elderly shopkeeper shouted. Others, especially the younger people, engaged in a more serious discussion.
Visiting a refugee camp is like entering "Alice through the Looking Glass." Just five minutes from familiar Israeli landscape, one enters another world where everyone talks about the same history and current events that Jews talk about, only the heroes and the villains are reversed.
While I celebrate the return of my people to our ancient homeland, protected by an army that serves as a bulwark against terror and I worry about the consequences of a peace settlement for our security, the Palestinians have a very different version of events: they speak of how foreign infiltrators seized control of their land, forcing them into tents and overcrowded buildings of the refugee camps; They speak of our army as the instrument of their misery, forcing them to seek permits for every move they make; and they speak of their own powerlessness, and their terror in the face of armed settlers and the army. They are convinced that while their leadership seeks peace, ours is stubbornly building settlements to prevent any possibility of a peaceful outcome.
One man I met ran an organization for Palestinian youth with the motto "beautiful resistance" – his response to our "ugly occupation." He was intelligent, eloquent and ferocious in his opposition to Israel. As he harangued me about our treatment of Palestinians, his office door opened, and a little boy slipped into the room. It was his young son Ahmed who warmly kissed me on both cheeks.
I am well practiced in presenting the justice of Israel's case, but it is disconcerting to do so when sitting face to face with those who have lost their family homes and live in a refugee camp. It's grueling to listen to their hostile historical perspectives, it's even harder when they ply you with coffee and their children shower you with love.
I do not accept all of the Palestinian narratives that I heard. I do not accept that Israel is totally to blame for their predicament. But demonizing all Palestinians will not help, either, nor will denying or ignoring their suffering.
Maintaining pride in our Zionism must also include an awareness of others who share our land, and how our presence affects them. The conversations are tough, but they are necessary if we are to fulfill the true goal of Zionism, which is not only to provide a secure shelter for Jews, but to also build a just and ethical society living in peace with its neighbors.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.
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