I could write about a number of exciting events over the past few weeks. I could elaborate on the beautiful Israeli wedding I attended at a Kibbutz right outside of Netanya: the sheer size of the celebration was astounding; (I’d estimate nearly 500 people attended, including your very own 5th cousin to the groom—he, surprisingly, had no idea who I was!).
I could also detail my weekend trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev. The Negev, for those unfamiliar with Israel’s terrain, is the desert region located in Southern Israel, which covers some 4,700 square miles, or a shocking 55% of Israel. Mitzpe Ramon is a unique town in the Negev, special because it overlooks the largest natural crater in the world, the Ramon Crater (28 miles long and 5 miles wide). Mitzpe Ramon represents a very different type of beauty from the golden, intense city of Jerusalem or the bustling beach-scene in Tel Aviv, but it embodies something that most Israelis also seem to deeply appreciate. It’s quiet, peaceful, almost biblical at Mitzpe Ramon. The mountain goats, the distant views of barren desert land, the magnificent sunset that you can catch sitting on top of the crater; Mitzpe Ramon is the anti-stereotype of Israel: As our 24-year-old tour guide, Liav, put it succinctly: “It’s a place to just come chill, to get away from all the craziness.”
But rather than elaborate on these adventures, I’d like to focus the rest of this post on a less enjoyable, but surely more provoking, and, at least personally—perspective changing experience. I’m not sure that the emotional aspect will fully resonate. I, for one, think that you must find yourself in a similar position first, but I’ll try to make it as real as possible.
I have wanted to run through the Old City of Jerusalem for a while now; you could say it was one of those check-list items before I left. So, a few days ago, on a rare beautiful day in Jerusalem, (see my last blog entry for a full report on the ‘fantastic’ weather here), I jumped at the opportunity to take in the fresh air, catch some scenery, and more importantly– get some exercise (I’ve been packing one too many daily falafels over the past few weeks). Along with a few of my more adventurous friends, we vaguely outlined our run and started traveling in the general direction of the Old City, not giving much thought to the specifics: After all, we were four, fairly athletic, Hebrew-speaking, (usually) intelligent individuals—what’s the worst that could happen at 2PM in the afternoon?
The trek is about 3 miles in each direction; for most of the run we were on a main road (road # 1, or ‘kvish echod’ in Hebrew), but for a good mile, the road takes a sharp turn near a place called ‘Mount of Olives’ in East Jerusalem. For a few minutes that seemed just a bit longer, we found ourselves sprinting through Arab-villages. Very poor, beat-down areas; I had chosen to wear, perhaps foolishly, (or, perhaps just not realizing exactly how intense parts of Jerusalem really are), a tank-top with Israeli writing and a necklace with a golden Torah attached, and as we ran I received my share of ugly stares, violent gestures, and even the screaming ire of a homeless man sleeping on the side of the road. Still, nothing all that surprising: I have received many stares from disapproving shop-owners in the Arab market these past few weeks, and have mostly grown accustomed to the discomfort (I know, deep down, that it’s all just tough-love!) But then, as were running alongside what looked to be an old playground of sorts, a mob of young boys (maybe 9, 10 years old) sprung up—as if they had just been waiting, almost dying for the opportunity to start something—and began to jeer us, aggressively tossing rocks at our feet (and as I was taking up the rear, at my back and head). As I slowed down for a moment, so bewildered at these little boys’ violent eruption, I suddenly felt this little baby-foot creeping underneath my running legs, as one of the young boys tried to trip me. I whirled around, as a bolt of anger rocketed through my body, and stared violently at this little Arab boy, fists clenched—before realizing that a 15-1 match would probably not be in my best interest, especially in a dangerous area in one of the tensest cities in the world. Looking back now, I still remember the boy’s complexion vividly: his dark brown hair and chapped lips, his dusty blue shirt, and most of all—I remember his raging, fierce eyes piercing through me, almost screaming “how dare you!” I unclenched my fists, struggled to open my mouth, and realizing that I was too confused to register something coherent—I took off, bolting past the screaming mob as I tried to catch up with my friends.
In hindsight, I don’t think I was ever really that scared; I was just horrified. What had I done to deserve the ire, the absolute, unrequited hate and anger of a complete stranger? Is it really enough that I’m simply a foreigner , a Jew? We’ve all been known to judge people on occasion, but to react so violently to a superficial appearance? Outrageous! And where does that resentment and hate originate? Had my quick-footed aggressor learned to react aggressively from an older brother or father, or perhaps at school?
What bothered me the most was the hopelessness and downright sadness I felt upon returning to my dorm. How are we ever going to bring peace to a region where little children are taught that innocent, American students are the enemy? The major challenge, as I (expertly) see it going into my fifth week living in Jerusalem, is convincing the next generation (the 8 and 9 year olds) that violent reactions will only get us where their parents have taken us.
It’s often said in Israel that there will be peace with the Palestinians when their mothers and fathers love their children more than they hate the Israelis. I can’t think of a more valid way of putting it: that little boy’s hate was not a natural, instinctual response—it was a learned, hateful reaction to someone that he now perceives as the ‘enemy.’ Only when we are able to reach that hate, and still those piercing eyes, (or at least redirect them) can we truly discuss the beginnings of peace. I do not know when or if that day will come. What I do know is that little boy is surely not ready, and to be frank–that’s pretty damn depressing.