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The author of this story is enrolled in an educa­tional program in Jerusalem that does not permit its partic­i­pants to visit the West Bank, and has asked that his name be withheld.

What do you say to your Palestinian host mother when, while sitting together at her dinner table in Bethlehem, she turns to you and asks, “Do you support the Israeli Army?”

Perhaps I should have prepared for this ques­tion before I left for the West Bank on my two-day study tour. When Rula asked, however, I froze. As an American Jew and a student of Middle Eastern Studies, I had come to Bethlehem to extend my under­standing of the conflict. I had not antic­i­pated just how personal it would become.

My tour was orga­nized by Encounter, an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion that brings Diaspora Jews into contact with Palestinians through short trips to the Occupied Territories. The trips feature discus­sions, informal meet­ings with Palestinian peers and leaders, and home stays with local fami­lies. I was one of 37 young Jews on one of the group’s fall excur­sions to Bethlehem.

In the days before the trip, I felt a mixture of excite­ment and skep­ti­cism. I was looking forward to hearing first-hand accounts of how Israeli occu­pa­tion affects the lives of Palestinians. I wanted to hear from Palestinians whether they believed coex­is­tence in the form of a two-state solu­tion was possible and, if so, which compro­mises would need to be made in order to achieve a lasting peace. At the same time, I worried that the group would be presented with a series of one-sided lectures and scripted visits to loca­tions such as the Security Wall and the sites of demol­ished homes. What I expe­ri­enced, however, was a series of authentic and moving meet­ings with people who left me hopeful and yet cautious about the prospect of bringing an end to the conflict.

To Bethlehem

For the novice West-Bank trav­eler, Bethlehem’s prox­imity to Jerusalem is striking. After boarding our bus near the popular Jerusalem strip Emek Refaim, we arrived at the outgoing check­point in a matter of minutes.

Our first stop on the Palestinian side of the wall was at Hope Flowers, a secondary school that prides itself on a curriculum of nonvi­o­lence, peace, and democ­racy. Our group was addressed by Ghada Ghabon, a school admin­is­trator. Ghabon showed a video which was intended to describe Hope Flowers’ approach to peace educa­tion. The video displayed images of smiling Palestinians to the tune of John Lennon’s Imagine, inter­spersed with photos of stern faced and menacing Israeli soldiers, to sinister effect. Later, a ques­tion and answer period revealed that the school’s text­books contain pre-1948 maps of Palestine. I realize that, after the Intifada, it is likely that the only inter­ac­tion most Palestinians have with Israelis is through soldiers, and Ghada was clear that her school is required to use certain text­books by the Ministry of Education. Still, despite these justi­fi­ca­tions, I was left worrying that Hope Flowers’ vision of coex­is­tence was different from my own.

A similar moment occurred when our group met with a dozen or so Palestinian high school students. Our evening together opened with a few icebreaker games. In one game, our group stood in a circle and took turns making state­ments that others could choose to agree with by step­ping inside the circle or disagree with by staying put. Statements quickly moved from “Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan” to “I believe the Security Wall is unjust.” My surprise came when one American student tested the waters by stating, “I believe that Tel-Aviv is part of Palestine,” and just about every Palestinian student entered the circle.

Not every inci­dent was quite so disheart­ening. A meeting with a Palestinian peace activist named Aziz stands out. Aziz is currently a leader at At-Tariq & Bereaved Families Forum, an orga­ni­za­tion that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who share the common bond of having lost loved ones to the conflict. Aziz himself lost his brother to the conflict when he was a teenager, and described the rage he felt toward Israelis after­wards. As he grew up, he told us, his anger inten­si­fied. However, he later decided he needed to learn Hebrew to get into univer­sity. He thus trav­eled into Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, where he was forced to interact with Israelis. It was there that he real­ized his “enemies” were not as he had thought they were. Through these expe­ri­ences Aziz resolved not to let the death of his brother define who he would be as a person. “Pain is like nuclear power,” he explained. “It can be used to destroy or make things better.”

Rula’s House

It was fresh from these expe­ri­ences that I first met my host mother, Rula. We met at a Bethlehem restau­rant. Her husband was working late and her oldest son was sick, so Rula came alone. The dinner conver­sa­tion focused mostly on our different lives in different parts of the world. In what turned out to be a common gesture among many people that I met that weekend, Rula went out of her way to explain that she has met many Israelis and Jews whom she likes, and that her griev­ances are solely with the Israeli government.

What was most inter­esting about Rula’s family was how normal it was, and the small ways in which it reminded me of my own. She apol­o­gized for having to bring me home to a slightly messy house (which in fact was perfectly clean) and tried desper­ately to provide for all of my needs. After watching Shakespeare in Love in Arabic, Matthew, her youngest son, decided it was time to play. We spent a solid hour making goofy faces and watching him wrestle with his much stronger mom.

It was during the next morning’s wrestling match between Matthew and mom, which Rula won with a body-slam-and-kiss-on-the-face combo that I remem­bered Golda Meir’s famous apho­rism, “We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their chil­dren more than they hate us.” In Rula’s living room, it seemed almost silly.

Back in Jerusalem

The story of the Encounter program is surely different for each partic­i­pant. There were those who left with a sense of hope­less­ness regarding the conflict. Others walked away believing the plight of the Palestinians to be self-inflicted. Some partic­i­pants expressed feel­ings of betrayal that their North American Jewish educa­tion had misin­formed them about many aspects of Israel’s existence.

As for me, I now feel much more aware of the contours of this conflict and the factors that are preventing its reso­lu­tion. My time in Bethlehem, fifteen minutes and a world away from my tempo­rary home in Jerusalem, leads me to believe that Palestinians are more inter­ested in coming to an end of the conflict than contin­uing it.

Israel coverage is made possible by Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation.

The author of this story is enrolled in an educa­tional program in Jerusalem that does not permit its partic­i­pants to visit the West Bank, and has asked that his name be withheld.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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