By: Pedro André Lazo Rivera, Student at Tufts University (Somerville, MA)
I tried my best to end up anywhere else on Earth, but there I was. After answering an email from a person I hadn’t spoken to in two years, scrambling to finish my semester weeks in advance and dropping everything with a half a moment’s notice, I was halfway around the world, surrounded by a team of strangers, and wondering if I was in over my head. As we began to make our final descent towards Tel Aviv, The White City revealed itself to us. It had been almost a year since I had left Puerto Rico, the small Caribbean island I had lived in my whole life, to study in the United States. I had gone a long way from home, but I never thought I’d find myself here, about to walk over the most disputed soil on Earth, hovering back and forth between a young Jewish country willing to do anything to survive and an old Arab nation that has stood resolute for millennia.
I’m a student, first and foremost. As an academic, I am double-majoring in International Relations and Peace and Justice Studies, with a focus on International Security. As an individual, I try my best to look beyond the often cold and scientific literature of my field to see the human side of conflict. My friends and colleagues tend to disapprove of my approach, they say emotions are too gritty, raw, and relative. They’ll insist that I need to practice a “reasonable disconnect”, and that if I get too caught up in the people and not the problems I’ll never be able to work in conflict resolution. I’m always left dumbfounded by the notion that I need to be detached from people if I really want to help them out. I think it betrays a certain imperialist arrogance that characterizes some of my colleagues, who believe they can impose solutions to situations they don’t understand without trying to relate to the people who live this day in and day out. I had been studying the conflict for years, and knew a fair deal about the history and context of the region, but it was this sense of urgency to understand conflicts through the eyes of the people living them that brought me to the Holy Land.
I have struggled with how to best to write this blog post in a way that truly and clearly portrays my experiences in the Holy Land, and I think the best way of doing that is to share some excerpts from the journal that I kept throughout the trip, and some thoughts I’ve had about these moments. These are honest, unedited, emotional accounts of what I saw, heard, learned, and felt as I made my way through Israel and Palestine. (Some segments have been translated to English).
8-May-2017 : The drive to Jerusalem was a surreal experience. I sat at the front of the bus, next to our driver Ali, and marveled at the intricate network of roads, checkpoints, fortifications, fences, towers, and walls that the Israeli military uses to cordon off and corral the Palestinian villages of the West Bank. It unnerved me to see the well planned and intricate manner in which fear manifests itself when there is enough of it.
In my conversations with very close Jewish-American friends who call themselves Zionists with pride and are deeply devoted to the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish State, I have seen a love of their people walk hand in hand with a tremendous fear of how the other may harm them, and an urgency to combat that uncertainty. My Palestinian friends shared a very similar sentiment with me, saying that their everyday lives have been poisoned by fear and the erratic and unpredictable spasms of a military occupation. I spoke with many students who said they never quite knew if they’d be able to make it to school that day because it all depended on the checkpoints that cut them off from their friends and teachers. Friends complained about how travelling as a Palestinian is nearly impossible, and how they find themselves refused the right to travel even within the Palestinian Authority itself. A woman shared a story of how she was assumed a terrorist until proven innocent while she studied in the United States, as soon as she mentioned her place of origin. They are discriminated against at every turn, shunned, and treated as foreigners wherever they may find themselves; and the fact that this last sentence could be about Jews or Palestinians alike is a stark reminder that these two people have a similar history of exclusion and should work to rally around that shared experience while building a more inclusive world for themselves and one another.
Matters of faith are inextricably linked to the history, politics, and conflicts of the region; as well as a core part of why I was in the Holy Land in the first place. I had looked forward to visiting some of the holy sites I had heard so much about throughout my life and seeing if one could truly feel some sort of positive energy or a wisp of holiness among these quiet and solemn places of worship, and boy was I in for a surprise. Most “holy” sites were loud, crowded, and felt more like tourist attractions than places of worship because that’s exactly what they had been turned into. At no place was this made clearer to me than in Christ’s manger in Bethlehem, and I feel like this excerpt from my journal entry that day speaks for itself.
9-May-2017: I realize now that I omitted my visit to the birthplace of Christ from my account. I must be honest, it was disappointing. We were rushed through it by our guide, as the Greek Orthodox Church was hurrying pilgrims through so they could seal the manger for a prayer. We were hurried into the manger alongside a crowd of visitors, all shoving and elbowing to try and find Christ on the floor over the fourteen pointed silver star that had been placed over his place of birth. I took my pictures, touched the star in hesitation, and whispered a brief prayer to myself, but I did not feel God in that room. That small stone cave adorned with silvers and silks was no more holy than the streetlamps across the road from the church. It felt too ornate, too ornamental, too crowded, and too hurried. There was no respect or solemnity in the King of King’s manger. God was not in that cave. God was in the hands of the bird rearer [at the Environmental Education Center], and his gentle grasp as he opened his palm and freed the birds he had already tagged from their traps. It was in Naim’s voice [in Abraham’s Herberge] as he spoke of teaching boys and girls alongside one another for the first time. God was in Angel’s smile as she spoke of the arts classes taught [at the Diyar Consortium] and how they seek to promote peace and culture over politics in Palestine. God was in Salam’s cynical chuckle when we talked about one-state versus two-state, and Stephanie’s excited laughter as we planned my next trip to Jerusalem. It was in Zein’s hands as she held Karin’s son David in her hands, overjoyed by the child’s innocence. God does not live in the holy stones, but in the living stones of this Holy Land.
And so, at the end of the day, it was the people of Israel and Palestine that taught me the most valuable lessons, opened my mind to new dimensions of the conflict I had never considered, and strengthened my faith in God and the possibility of a peaceful resolution to this conflict.