“Woah! She’s so cool! There’s no way she’s Arab!” This is the thought that went through my eight-year-old head when I first met my camp counselor, Amal. When I was little, I had the unfortunate habit of picking up on things my parents said out of context, misinterpreting them, and forming inaccurate opinions. When my parents talked about their native Israel, I only heard the parts about Jews being victimized and mistreated. I got the idea that the Palestinians were a cruel people who unanimously hated Jews. The only Palestinians I knew were the ones I saw on the news throwing stones. To my unfortunately xenophobic young brain, the world was split into us and them, and the Palestinians (and by extension, all Arabs) were our enemies.
This was my thinking when my parents sent me to Middle East Peace Camp, a week-long Seattle summer camp for Jewish and Arab children to meet, do crafts, sing, learn about each other’s cultures, and, most importantly, get to know each other on a human level. On the first day, I stuck with my Jewish posse, warily eyeing my supposed enemies. They didn’t seem so different from me, but I knew that was just an act. The next day we were divided into mixed groups to create skits about our traditions. Leading my group was Amal. She was 13 and I was jealous of her braces. This was somebody I looked up to. She talked to me like a sister, not like how other middle schoolers treated eight-year-olds. She was so nice to me, I had assumed she must be Jewish. In our skit, she sang and acted flawlessly. I was thrilled to be taken under the wing of such an outstanding Jewish teen. And then, Amal started speaking Arabic to her sister. I blurted out, “You’re Arab?!” She looked confused and said, “Yes, I’m Palestinian.” How could someone so wonderful belong to such a terrible group of people? I thought. It was that day that I realized that I really knew nothing about Palestinians. Amal was not the exception, but the rule. That was the first moment I remember being forced to step back and re-evaluate the ‘facts’ that I had never before questioned. The discovery that there were, in fact, lovely, kind, and artistic 13-year-old Palestinian-American girls who were just like me made me realize that I needed to figure out the truth of the situation for myself.
I had unconsciously internalized what the American and Israeli media and governments wanted me to believe. The isolating and artificial binaries of good and evil, Jewish and Arab, victim and aggressor, serve only to create fear of the other and allow us to hide in our own cocoons of blissful ignorance. We need them, the other, so that we have someone to blame. Once you meet them, however, it’s harder to lump an entire group of people into a single category of enemy.
My parents are Israeli. They were born there, educated there, and both served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They moved to the Seattle area in 1989 for work and study. My siblings and I grew up in a home that was culturally Jewish and Israeli: We speak Hebrew, celebrate major Jewish holidays, cook Israeli food, and, by and large, identify as progressive, somewhat secular Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been an important conversation in my house. My extended family still lives in Israel and we travel there at least once a year to visit family and friends. Therefore in my early childhood I heard none of the Palestinian perspective.
Whenever I travel to Israel, it feels like home. Something in the air, in the faces, in the food, makes me feel at ease. For a long time, I took for granted that feeling of home. I did not think about the complexity of Israel as a conceptual (and actual) homeland and about the problems this posed. Over time, however, I’ve become aware of the disconnect between my perception of Israel as a safe haven and the reality of Israel as an occupying force.
Why should I be able to feel at home and at ease in Israel when Palestinians do not have that luxury? Is my own concept of homeland dependent on the destruction of another? Too often, the American discourse on Israel and Palestine is extremely polarizing. Either you believe in the right of the Jewish people to have their own state, or you believe in the right of the Palestinian people to govern and defend themselves. There is no middle ground. In conversations about the conflict, I often express discontent with the actions of the Israeli government, and the majority of the responses I get fall into two camps. If I am talking to non-Jews, the response is along the lines of “Wow, but you’re Jewish!” When I am speaking to members of the Jewish-American community, I have gotten responses like “You are a self-hating Jew.” That one always makes me laugh a little.
Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine are not mutually exclusive terms. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to support the continued existence of a democratic, Jewish state in Israel without supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel cannot continue to exist as it does now with a harsh double standard. For its Jewish citizens, it is a modern democracy with a thriving tech-industry and a more-or-less healthy political process. For Palestinians, Israel is a ruthless occupying force with control over some of the most personal details of everyday life. These conflicting policies are unsustainable, corrupting, and immoral.
The polarization of the Israel-Palestine discourse on campus is no less problematic. Students find themselves having to choose between being pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, with no middle ground and no space to have a discussion of more nuanced views. This is where J Street U of the Claremont Colleges comes in. J Street U is the student organizing arm of J Street, which is a national movement that is the political home for pro-peace, pro-Israel, and pro-Palestine Americans. J Street advocates for sustained U.S. diplomacy and leadership in Israel and Palestine in order to reach a two-state solution. I got on board last year and have been involved in developing and expanding our chapter. This movement helps us distance ourselves from harmful, socially constructed binaries and redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. Holding Israel’s hand and pretending that everything is okay is not pro-Israel, it is pro-conflict and pro-ignorance. The future of pro-Israel is pro-Palestine, pro-peace, pro-human rights, pro-shared humanity, and pro-an eight-year-old daughter of Israeli immigrants meeting a Palestinian girl for the first time and realizing they both like how the earth smells after it rains.