When Shabbat ends, I will set out on my favorite earthly journey, represented by six of the best letters in our alphabet: JFK-TLV. New York to Israel. (Hope I get a window seat.)
This trip will be like many of my others, yet different from them all. It will be similar, including Shabbat in the liberal, heavily Anglo neighborhoods of South Jerusalem, visiting at least five AC young adults studying in Israel, Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, and, I sincerely hope, ice cream and coffee at Savta’s in Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv.
But it will be notably different in that my main focus will be in areas that I almost never visit: the Palestinian territories. This time, most of my visit will be with Encounter, a group that takes American Jewish professionals and lay leaders to meet a sampling (at least, if always imperfect) of the West Bank Palestinians. We will travel in Bethlehem and Ramallah, and I will stay in one family’s home.
A few years ago, Peter Beinart asserted that American Jews who love Israel should be embarrassed to travel there without visiting those neighbors with whom the Jewish state is locked in deep national struggle. He’s exactly right.
I am a liberal Zionist in every cell of my body. I visit Israel at least annually, and read and think about Israel and its challenges obsessively. But all too infrequently do I meet the Palestinian people, to learn about their struggles. How can we work toward peace – which, let us recall, is always with adversaries, never with friends – if we do not know the hearts and minds of those with whom we conflict?
I have tried to alleviate that gap in our shul’s life in recent years. Through Encounter, we have hosted two young territories residents studying in America. We heard from Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor who lost his job for teaching his students about the Shoah and bringing them to Auschwitz, and his own struggles to honor Jewish and Palestinian experiences. And this month we met Robi Damelin and Mazen Faraj from the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved people in both camps, who have lost loved ones, yet renounce revenge in favor of reconciliation.
My sincere hope is that on this trip, this American Zionist Jew – who affirms that Israel is a great blessing to the Jewish people, a modern miracle, as well as an ethical challenge – will learn more about the experience of Palestinians. No doubt, some will challenge my core beliefs. But that’s good. One cannot rely on core commitments, only as long as no one disagrees with them.
Among my favorite lines of our prayer book is this: פתח לבי בתורתך. “God, may You open my heart through Your Torah.” I pray that the Torah, its mitzvot and values – that having lived through many Egypts, we Jews should know the experience of the dispossessed, that we recognize that all human beings bear God’s image – open my heart to the stories I will hear.