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View from the Other Side:
Bruce Stanger Relates His Experiences in the West Bank

by Mark Jahne
Published on March 1, 2009 in West Hartford Life
Bruce Stanger visits Israel often and has long been a passionate supporter of the Jewish state. But he also believes in bringing people together to try to foster understanding.
That belief led him to spend two days in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, an expe­ri­ence he said he will not soon forget.
Mr. Stanger, 57, a West Hartford resi­dent who prac­tices law out of an office on South Main Street, went to the Middle East last November 20–21 as part of a group of 20 American Jewish leaders for a two-day, one-night stay in the West Bank. They were hosted by an orga­ni­za­tion called Encounter, which describes itself as “an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to providing Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life.”
“These programs are all about indi­vid­uals talking to indi­vid­uals and recog­nizing the humanity,” he said. “A big part of this program was our instruc­tions to be largely listeners.”
The goal was not to argue with the Palestinians or try to convince them that they were wrong, even though that’s how he often felt. His goal was to listen to them and gain perspective.
Ms. (sic) Stanger is a member of Beth El Temple and has held lead­er­ship posi­tions in several Hartford area Jewish orga­ni­za­tions. He is also president-elect of the West Hartford Rotary Club.
His group crossed the border into the West Bank in spite of offi­cial U.S. Department of State warn­ings that it is an unsafe place for Americans. They were hosted by Palestinian Arab fami­lies but, for both their own protec­tion and that of their hosts, had to hide any and all evidence that they are Jewish.
“The most diffi­cult thing for me was being told that I couldn’t wear this,” Mr. Stanger said, as he displayed a chain with a mezuzah and Jewish star that he wears around his neck.
“It was dangerous for me and dangerous for the hosts. For me, it had a flash­back to the Holocaust.”
He went with the belief that not all Palestinians are terror­ists. He also went to meet people and listen to what they had to say.
“I’ve had an oppor­tu­nity over the years to speak with many Palestinians. I knew before (I went) that these people are not bad people … I knew before that they had been victim­ized by the surrounding Arab states,” he said.
The radical minority who want “to drive Israel into the sea” are ruining it for everyone else, he believes. Mr. Stanger said the reality is that Israel is an occu­pying authority, but it doesn’t want to be.
The Jewish group stayed in Bethlehem, near the Israeli border, and toured the town by bus. It is an impor­tant place in the eyes of the Christian world as the birth­place of Jesus, so visi­tors are not unusual. He spec­u­lated that the Palestinian resi­dents prob­ably presumed they were just another group of Christian tourists and thus they were able to move about in safety.
“There are so many Christians coming through that it’s not unusual (for the locals) to see Americans,” he said.
“I’ve always thought of the Palestinian people as the victims of the Arabs” in surrounding nations and their own lead­er­ship. Mr. Stanger pointed out that Palestinians are not welcome in other Arab countries.
By compar­ison, “any Jew can go to Israel and take up resi­dence, no ques­tions asked.”
“I’m not saying they should have to leave,” but the reality is the Palestinians have no option but to stay where they are, he added. “They are the paws the Arab coun­tries are using to prevent Israel from being stable.”
While some members of his group spent the night in a hotel, Mr. Stanger chose to stay in the home of a Palestinian family. He played with their grand­chil­dren and enjoyed tradi­tional Arab hospitality.
But he still had to exer­cise caution when it came time for daily prayers. The risk of discovery was always on his mind.
They had to make sure they didn’t speak any Hebrew because that would give them away. It made Mr. Stanger reflect upon how different people view the world through different filters.
“When I hear Hebrew I think fondly of my Bar Mitzvah or how welcome I feel in Israel. I think family and being open without any concerns,” he said.
“A Palestinian hears Hebrew and thinks danger, feels the need for caution. They’re very fearful of Hebrew, they’re very fearful of Jews,” because Jews repre­sent the occu­pying authority.
Another example of different perspec­tive is the contro­ver­sial secu­rity fence (a fence in some areas, a wall in others) that Israel built to protect it from terrorist attacks. While Israelis consider it a safety barrier, he said Palestinians refer to it as an “apartheid wall,” seeing it as a form of segre­ga­tion similar to the racist prac­tices of the old regime in South Africa.
“They view the secu­rity fence as an attempt to punish them rather than an attempt to provide secu­rity” for Israeli citi­zens, he said. But Mr. Stanger added that the reality is that the “homi­cide bombers have decreased since the wall went up.”
Despite the warm hospi­tality, Mr. Stanger still found it some­what unset­tling to be “sleeping in an Arab’s home in the West Bank where I had been told to be fearful for my life if someone knew I was Jewish. We prayed in a room without windows and in soft­ened tones so as not to be heard,” he said.
He woke at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of an imam calling Muslims to prayer from a nearby minaret.
“The area we were in, Israelis are not permitted to go there” because of the risk of kidnap­ping for polit­ical purposes, Mr. Stanger said. Any Israeli who does so is subject to arrest.
“They had us sit with a number of different groups,” including teenagers who had never been given the oppor­tu­nity to speak with Jews before. “We played some coop­er­a­tive games” with them.
One of the most striking moments was when they all stood in a circle. They were asked to move to the center of the circle if they ever had a family member who had been killed by the “authorities.”
All of the American Jews moved to the center because of family connec­tions to the Holocaust. Then all of the Palestinians joined them because of rela­tives who had died in conflict with Israel.
No one was left standing on the outside of the circle.
“From the Israeli perspec­tive, the Holocaust was a random killing of Jews because they were Jews,” Mr. Stanger said. They see “the death of Palestinians as either a func­tion of war or the preven­tion of terrorism.”
But from the Palestinian perspec­tive, “it’s just the (Israeli) author­i­ties killing them, although they’re not suggesting it’s a genocide.”
He was disap­pointed by the general feeling, expressed by many Palestinians, both highly educated and not, that there is little hope for, or interest in, peaceful co-existence with Israel. Like the Moors, Romans, and Crusaders before them, the Jews are viewed by many Palestinians as the most recent occu­piers of their land and, like the others, they will even­tu­ally leave, even if it takes 1,000 years.
“The consis­tent thing that I heard is that the Jews are just the latest of the so-called conquerors,” said Mr. Stanger.
“I just don’t know how they’ll come to peaceful terms. People have started saying that a two-state solu­tion will never work.”
The American group also visited the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, which teaches co-existence and paci­fism to a student body of both Muslims and Christians and, it is hoped in the future, Jews. Its founder, Hussein Ibrahim Issa, was forced with his family from their land in the 1948 war and he grew up in a refugee camp.
He was ostra­cized by some in the Palestinian commu­nity for taking such a proac­tive approach to peaceful coex­is­tence, according to Mr. Stanger.
Visible in the distance was an Israeli secu­rity tower. Again, the perspec­tive was radi­cally different.
Mr. Stanger and his fellow trav­elers saw it as occu­pied by brave Israeli soldiers dedi­cated to defending their home­land. The Palestinians saw it as a perch full of snipers from which their Israeli oppres­sors could shoot them on a whim.
One Palestinian teenager said her dream was to live in Israel because it has no litter and because it is a society of rules and law. Mr. Stanger called the amount of garbage and litter he saw “astounding.”
By meeting the people, he came to realize that they carry with them a sense of hope­less­ness that their lot in life will ever improve.
“I person­ally think that their govern­ments have let them down,” he said.
“What I was left with was a real sense of sadness about how their percep­tion of the facts were so different and, I believe, wrong,” Mr. Stanger said.
The whole expe­ri­ence left him thankful that he lives in the United States, a place where he can be openly Jewish without any fear.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, North American director of Encounter, said leaders of major Jewish orga­ni­za­tions from all across the country have partic­i­pated in trips such as the one Mr. Stanger expe­ri­enced. They repre­sent all the polit­ical views and opin­ions on the Middle East within the American Jewish commu­nity. “We have a stag­gering diver­sity of partic­i­pants,” she said.
“The value (of an Encounter visit to the West Bank) is for Jewish deci­sion makers and change agents … to have direct contact with Palestinian narra­tives and real­i­ties,” she said. “We do trips every month. It’s a chance to interact with Palestinians face to face.”
Participants receive emotional and other training ahead of time to prepare them for this expe­ri­ence. They are told to treat the Palestinians they meet as individuals.
“People are really heroic in stretching them­selves to under­stand the other on our trips. We have really succeeded in normal­izing this expe­ri­ence,” Rabbi Weintraub said.
While some American Jews might feel that reaching out to Palestinians is an inap­pro­priate or even disloyal thing, she suggests the oppo­site is true. She said programs like Encounter are of crucial impor­tance for those who feel passion­ately about Israel and its future.
“We come to under­stand, we come to listen. It’s not about imposing any polit­ical agenda,” said Rabbi Weintraub.
She also believes that such trips spark valu­able dialogue within the Jewish community.
Mr. Stanger has also partic­i­pated for the past five years in bicycle rides spon­sored by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). The insti­tute serves as a regional center for envi­ron­mental leadership.
According to its web site, it prepares future Arab and Jewish leaders to coop­er­a­tively solve the region’s envi­ron­mental chal­lenges. Affiliated with Ben Gurion University, AIES houses acad­emic programs, research and inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion initia­tives on a range of envi­ron­mental concerns and challenges.
Students explore a range of envi­ron­mental issues from a trans-boundary and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary perspec­tive while learning peace-building and lead­er­ship skills.
With a student body comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and students from around the world, AIES offers them a unique oppor­tu­nity to study and live together for an extended period of time, building networks and devel­oping under­standing that will enable future coop­er­a­tive work and activism in the Middle East and beyond.
Antonio Rodriguez, a fellow West Hartford resi­dent and Rotarian, went on an Arava bicycle ride with Mr. Stanger a few years ago. He had high praise for his friend and for his will­ing­ness to put words into action.
“He likes to set an example and take respon­si­bility,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Bruce is always trying to connect people, to bring people together.”
As Mr. Rodriguez sees it, Mr. Stanger is dedi­cated to under­standing the thinking of all sides in the Middle East and hopes others will follow that example so that efforts can be made for Israelis and Palestinians to better under­stand each other and come to compro­mises that will benefit all involved.
“He feels when you reach out, that provides possi­bil­i­ties of better under­standing,” Mr. Rodriguez said. WHL
For more infor­ma­tion about Encounter visit www​.encoun​ter​pro​grams​.org. For addi­tional infor­ma­tion about the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies visit www​.arava​.org or www​.israel​ride​.org.

Bruce Stanger visits Israel often and has long been a passionate supporter of the Jewish state. But he also believes in bringing people together to try to foster understanding.

That belief led him to spend two days in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, an expe­ri­ence he said he will not soon forget.

Mr. Stanger, 57, a West Hartford resi­dent who prac­tices law out of an office on South Main Street, went to the Middle East last November 20–21 as part of a group of 20 American Jewish leaders for a two-day, one-night stay in the West Bank. They were hosted by an orga­ni­za­tion called Encounter, which describes itself as “an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to providing Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life.”

These programs are all about indi­vid­uals talking to indi­vid­uals and recog­nizing the humanity,” he said. “A big part of this program was our instruc­tions to be largely listeners.”

The goal was not to argue with the Palestinians or try to convince them that they were wrong, even though that’s how he often felt. His goal was to listen to them and gain perspective.

Ms. (sic) Stanger is a member of Beth El Temple and has held lead­er­ship posi­tions in several Hartford area Jewish orga­ni­za­tions. He is also president-elect of the West Hartford Rotary Club.

His group crossed the border into the West Bank in spite of offi­cial U.S. Department of State warn­ings that it is an unsafe place for Americans. They were hosted by Palestinian Arab fami­lies but, for both their own protec­tion and that of their hosts, had to hide any and all evidence that they are Jewish.

The most diffi­cult thing for me was being told that I couldn’t wear this,” Mr. Stanger said, as he displayed a chain with a mezuzah and Jewish star that he wears around his neck.

It was dangerous for me and dangerous for the hosts. For me, it had a flash­back to the Holocaust.”

He went with the belief that not all Palestinians are terror­ists. He also went to meet people and listen to what they had to say.

I’ve had an oppor­tu­nity over the years to speak with many Palestinians. I knew before (I went) that these people are not bad people … I knew before that they had been victim­ized by the surrounding Arab states,” he said.

The radical minority who want “to drive Israel into the sea” are ruining it for everyone else, he believes. Mr. Stanger said the reality is that Israel is an occu­pying authority, but it doesn’t want to be.

The Jewish group stayed in Bethlehem, near the Israeli border, and toured the town by bus. It is an impor­tant place in the eyes of the Christian world as the birth­place of Jesus, so visi­tors are not unusual. He spec­u­lated that the Palestinian resi­dents prob­ably presumed they were just another group of Christian tourists and thus they were able to move about in safety.

There are so many Christians coming through that it’s not unusual (for the locals) to see Americans,” he said.

I’ve always thought of the Palestinian people as the victims of the Arabs” in surrounding nations and their own lead­er­ship. Mr. Stanger pointed out that Palestinians are not welcome in other Arab countries.

By compar­ison, “any Jew can go to Israel and take up resi­dence, no ques­tions asked.”

I’m not saying they should have to leave,” but the reality is the Palestinians have no option but to stay where they are, he added. “They are the paws the Arab coun­tries are using to prevent Israel from being stable.”

While some members of his group spent the night in a hotel, Mr. Stanger chose to stay in the home of a Palestinian family. He played with their grand­chil­dren and enjoyed tradi­tional Arab hospitality.

But he still had to exer­cise caution when it came time for daily prayers. The risk of discovery was always on his mind.

They had to make sure they didn’t speak any Hebrew because that would give them away. It made Mr. Stanger reflect upon how different people view the world through different filters.

When I hear Hebrew I think fondly of my Bar Mitzvah or how welcome I feel in Israel. I think family and being open without any concerns,” he said.

A Palestinian hears Hebrew and thinks danger, feels the need for caution. They’re very fearful of Hebrew, they’re very fearful of Jews,” because Jews repre­sent the occu­pying authority.

Another example of different perspec­tive is the contro­ver­sial secu­rity fence (a fence in some areas, a wall in others) that Israel built to protect it from terrorist attacks. While Israelis consider it a safety barrier, he said Palestinians refer to it as an “apartheid wall,” seeing it as a form of segre­ga­tion similar to the racist prac­tices of the old regime in South Africa.

They view the secu­rity fence as an attempt to punish them rather than an attempt to provide secu­rity” for Israeli citi­zens, he said. But Mr. Stanger added that the reality is that the “homi­cide bombers have decreased since the wall went up.”

Despite the warm hospi­tality, Mr. Stanger still found it some­what unset­tling to be “sleeping in an Arab’s home in the West Bank where I had been told to be fearful for my life if someone knew I was Jewish. We prayed in a room without windows and in soft­ened tones so as not to be heard,” he said.

He woke at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of an imam calling Muslims to prayer from a nearby minaret.

The area we were in, Israelis are not permitted to go there” because of the risk of kidnap­ping for polit­ical purposes, Mr. Stanger said. Any Israeli who does so is subject to arrest.

They had us sit with a number of different groups,” including teenagers who had never been given the oppor­tu­nity to speak with Jews before. “We played some coop­er­a­tive games” with them.

One of the most striking moments was when they all stood in a circle. They were asked to move to the center of the circle if they ever had a family member who had been killed by the “authorities.”

All of the American Jews moved to the center because of family connec­tions to the Holocaust. Then all of the Palestinians joined them because of rela­tives who had died in conflict with Israel.

No one was left standing on the outside of the circle.

From the Israeli perspec­tive, the Holocaust was a random killing of Jews because they were Jews,” Mr. Stanger said. They see “the death of Palestinians as either a func­tion of war or the preven­tion of terrorism.”

But from the Palestinian perspec­tive, “it’s just the (Israeli) author­i­ties killing them, although they’re not suggesting it’s a genocide.”

He was disap­pointed by the general feeling, expressed by many Palestinians, both highly educated and not, that there is little hope for, or interest in, peaceful co-existence with Israel. Like the Moors, Romans, and Crusaders before them, the Jews are viewed by many Palestinians as the most recent occu­piers of their land and, like the others, they will even­tu­ally leave, even if it takes 1,000 years.

The consis­tent thing that I heard is that the Jews are just the latest of the so-called conquerors,” said Mr. Stanger.

I just don’t know how they’ll come to peaceful terms. People have started saying that a two-state solu­tion will never work.”

The American group also visited the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, which teaches co-existence and paci­fism to a student body of both Muslims and Christians and, it is hoped in the future, Jews. Its founder, Hussein Ibrahim Issa, was forced with his family from their land in the 1948 war and he grew up in a refugee camp.

He was ostra­cized by some in the Palestinian commu­nity for taking such a proac­tive approach to peaceful coex­is­tence, according to Mr. Stanger.

Visible in the distance was an Israeli secu­rity tower. Again, the perspec­tive was radi­cally different.

Mr. Stanger and his fellow trav­elers saw it as occu­pied by brave Israeli soldiers dedi­cated to defending their home­land. The Palestinians saw it as a perch full of snipers from which their Israeli oppres­sors could shoot them on a whim.

One Palestinian teenager said her dream was to live in Israel because it has no litter and because it is a society of rules and law. Mr. Stanger called the amount of garbage and litter he saw “astounding.”

By meeting the people, he came to realize that they carry with them a sense of hope­less­ness that their lot in life will ever improve.

I person­ally think that their govern­ments have let them down,” he said.

What I was left with was a real sense of sadness about how their percep­tion of the facts were so different and, I believe, wrong,” Mr. Stanger said.

The whole expe­ri­ence left him thankful that he lives in the United States, a place where he can be openly Jewish without any fear.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, North American director of Encounter, said leaders of major Jewish orga­ni­za­tions from all across the country have partic­i­pated in trips such as the one Mr. Stanger expe­ri­enced. They repre­sent all the polit­ical views and opin­ions on the Middle East within the American Jewish commu­nity. “We have a stag­gering diver­sity of partic­i­pants,” she said.

The value (of an Encounter visit to the West Bank) is for Jewish deci­sion makers and change agents … to have direct contact with Palestinian narra­tives and real­i­ties,” she said. “We do trips every month. It’s a chance to interact with Palestinians face to face.”

Participants receive emotional and other training ahead of time to prepare them for this expe­ri­ence. They are told to treat the Palestinians they meet as individuals.

People are really heroic in stretching them­selves to under­stand the other on our trips. We have really succeeded in normal­izing this expe­ri­ence,” Rabbi Weintraub said.

While some American Jews might feel that reaching out to Palestinians is an inap­pro­priate or even disloyal thing, she suggests the oppo­site is true. She said programs like Encounter are of crucial impor­tance for those who feel passion­ately about Israel and its future.

We come to under­stand, we come to listen. It’s not about imposing any polit­ical agenda,” said Rabbi Weintraub.

She also believes that such trips spark valu­able dialogue within the Jewish community.

Mr. Stanger has also partic­i­pated for the past five years in bicycle rides spon­sored by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). The insti­tute serves as a regional center for envi­ron­mental leadership.

According to its web site, it prepares future Arab and Jewish leaders to coop­er­a­tively solve the region’s envi­ron­mental chal­lenges. Affiliated with Ben Gurion University, AIES houses acad­emic programs, research and inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion initia­tives on a range of envi­ron­mental concerns and challenges.

Students explore a range of envi­ron­mental issues from a trans-boundary and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary perspec­tive while learning peace-building and lead­er­ship skills.

With a student body comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and students from around the world, AIES offers them a unique oppor­tu­nity to study and live together for an extended period of time, building networks and devel­oping under­standing that will enable future coop­er­a­tive work and activism in the Middle East and beyond.

Antonio Rodriguez, a fellow West Hartford resi­dent and Rotarian, went on an Arava bicycle ride with Mr. Stanger a few years ago. He had high praise for his friend and for his will­ing­ness to put words into action.

He likes to set an example and take respon­si­bility,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Bruce is always trying to connect people, to bring people together.”

As Mr. Rodriguez sees it, Mr. Stanger is dedi­cated to under­standing the thinking of all sides in the Middle East and hopes others will follow that example so that efforts can be made for Israelis and Palestinians to better under­stand each other and come to compro­mises that will benefit all involved.

He feels when you reach out, that provides possi­bil­i­ties of better under­standing,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

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