Reflections on Israel
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
While I definitely think there are a lot of takeaways from our time in Israel, what has perhaps been most impactful for me has been being faced with stark visual images that really seem to explain the conflict in a way that all the books and articles and roundtable discussions can’t do. As a student of literature, I’ve always had a different conception of what a narrative is and I’ve always placed a lot of weight in the power of the written word. But I don’t think I could ever really see what those narratives entailed, particularly with written word as the mediator. The powerful juxtapositions I visually saw, however, really illuminated a lot of what I just could not understand from books and lectures and even conversations with others. To see such stark contradictory elements all from the same vantage point has forced to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict on a radically different and deeper level. Furthermore, these were all snapshots of the lived experience of people. More or less, this was real life.
The first of these instances was in the kibbutz, after we’d all dried off from the pool, when we met briefly with Mark’s niece. She had a beautiful home, no doubt, but one of the first things we were met with her with was her young son who was heading off to his army training in a few weeks. I remember looking at him and thinking, “Holy shit, he’s so young.” As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a family with strong military ties so I like to think that I don’t underestimate the gravity of what it means to serve in the armed forces. To listen to this kid, and yes, I mean kid, talk about he’s been hitting the gym to prep for boot camp was overwhelming for me at best. He should be sneaking beers with his friends and fooling around with his first real girlfriend, not being issued a khaki colored uniform and learning about combat missions. And then to really push me over edge, Mark’s niece asked if we wanted to see the bomb shelter. The visual of a boy’s bedroom doubling as a bomb shelter was so shocking to me. All I could think was “This is unreal.” I had such a conventional upbringing with a big front lawn and the next door neighbors being our best friends and basketball practice and music lessons, and then I saw this lived reality where kids are used to and ingrained with a certain mindset that they are always at war.
After that experience, I asked some of the Jewish students if they planned to make aliyah and if they said yes I asked if they planned to raise a family in Israel. I remember one response was “If I can find a good school.” I had to laugh out loud at the sheer normalcy of the response. The lived reality of Israelis holds so many implications about family life and childhood to me. The idea of raising a family in a home that is legally required to have a bomb shelter, the reality that your son or daughter will be expected to serve in the military once he or she is eighteen, the consistently precarious position of your nation’s security—all of these very difficult elements of life and yet, some of my peers are still moving to Israel. I don’t think I really understood the Jewish ethnic identity until I was faced with this. The weight of this identity literally supersedes any ideas of security, and preserving the sanctuary of this identity becomes an existential goal.
The other image that was particularly jarring was in Hebron, but this visual spoke more to a Palestinian lived reality. I was already kind of overwhelmed by the demography—200,000 Palestinians and 700 Jewish settlers—and the sheer emptiness of the streets. There were these brand new benches on the sidewalk and I remember thinking to myself, “Who are these for? No one is going to sit here.” It literally looked, and felt, like a ghost town. Further, I took a closer look at the street signs and saw in lower left corner “The Jewish Community of Hebron.” At the top of a hill, I looked out and I felt I really got a snapshot of what it was like to be Palestinian living in this “Jewish community.” From this vantage point, I could see a Palestinian apartment building with bars on all the windows. At the corner was an IDF soldier with an Israeli flag flying from the top of his post and at the top of the building was a security camera swiveling back and forth. The only reason I noticed the security camera was because there were some very young children waving at us from the roof of the building, probably because they weren’t allowed to play in the street. Meanwhile, just over the concrete wall sectioning off Hebron, you can see an unblemished city of white buildings and normalcy, an expanse of clean white buildings, probably without bars on their windows or IDF soldiers at their corners.
While I know that this is not necessarily the lived experience of every Palestinian, I do think that this sense of feeling trapped is something that resonates very deeply among most Palestinians. It was really hard for me to look at that and not immediately think of apartheid. I can only imagine how the apartheid conditions of cities like Hebron fosters this shared feeling of being unjustly treated like second-class citizens. Furthermore, in the same way that I was baffled by the fact that the boy in the kibbutz was about to go off to the army after living in bomb shelter, the realization that the kids on the roof were going to grow up in these conditions was rather jarring. In the same way that Israeli children grow up knowing that they’ll have to serve one day, Palestinian children grown up knowing that they live under occupation. How can you expect to resolve the conflict if you have your kids living, breathing, and bathing in conflict?
Monica Roman is a member of the 2015 Ibrahim cohort.