Living in a Paradox

A summer trip to Israel broadened my understanding of my homeland.

by Josh Lancman

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In the picture book “Ella’s Trip to Israel,” a young girl named Ella takes a trip to Israel with her family and stuffed monkey, Koofi (Kof is Hebrew for monkey). Ella and her family fly on El Al airlines, visit the ancient Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem, shop at the shuk (outdoor market) in Tel Aviv, swim in the Dead Sea, and scuba dive in Eilat, seemingly all in one long day.

It’s as if the book was written by Israel’s tourism department, or maybe the foreign ministry. “Ella” runs through all the Israeli highlights: tahini, Dead Sea mud, ancient history, and more. A classic for Jewish toddlers, little kids (like me a decade ago) read “Ella” in preparation for their first trip to the Holy Land.

I grew up in the bubble “Ella” was made for. A lifetime of Jewish day school education, Jewish summer camp, synagogue attendance, and several short family vacations to Israel imposed on me an idealistic view of the Jewish state. However, on a trip I took with my camp in the summer of 2023 as a 17-year-old, I started to see the country as it truly is: both wonderful and complicated.

The reality of conflict year after year within 8,630 square miles of land overlaid the glossy images I grew up with, puncturing the bubble of my childhood idealization and redefining how I see Israel. 

Intense Remembrance

There are nine Camp Rs in North America, from California to Canada. We’re a group of Conservative Jewish camps, and most campers, like me, attend every summer from age 10 to 16. 

Afterwards comes R Seminar, where all the kids of the same age from each camp gather in Israel. Two hundred-eighty-one kids, eight buses, four campuses, from nearly every state plus two Canadian provinces travel in the Holy Land for six weeks the summer before senior year of high school. 

Seminar was my fifth trip to Israel and the first with an educational structure. During previous vacations, I visited the same hotspots as Ella, did the same activities, ate the same food. These experiences were positive, with the sole slightly disconcerting note being the constant presence of soldiers. They were mostly young: 18-23, smoking, chatting, eating shawarma, playing soccer with school kids, adorned in rainbow berets with M16s on their belts. 

Israel has a mandatory draft: three years for men, two for women, and many choose to extend their service. Arabs are not required to serve, but some do. (Arabs make up around 21% of the Israeli population and have full and equal rights, but that percentage does not include Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.) On my first trip, at age 9, my mother explained that the draft existed to keep everyone safe. Although comforting, the fact that this level of security was necessary still unnerved me.

For half of Seminar’s participants, the trip begins a week early in Poland with Holocaust education and a tour of concentration camps. Having gone to Auschwitz since then, I understand why the others who went that summer seemed traumatized when they arrived at Seminar. “It makes you understand why we need an Israel,” my friend Sam told me.

The State of Israel was founded in 1948 after the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. To remind visitors of that fact, all foreign diplomats visiting Israel are legally required to tour Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. The museum winds through slowly narrowing and dimming hallways, as though your life is gradually imploding, like it was for European Jews before the Second World War. Books bearing the victims’ names stack up to the ceiling; preserved shoes from concentration camps, stolen by the Nazis off dead Jewish feet, fill a train car. Finally, Yad VaShem opens up overlooking Jerusalem, a breathing city. The message I got was that despite this genocide, the Jewish people are here and thriving, thanks in large part to Israel, the only Jewish state.

Homeland

Seminar constantly reiterated the necessity of Israel as the Jewish homeland, because of millenia of Jewish persecution, including the Holocaust, and our ancient connections to the land. Israel began not simply because of the Holocaust, but after decades of Jewish immigration to the land. In the middle of the summer, all 281 of us took a sunrise hike up Masada, an ancient Roman palace on top of a mesa in the Negev desert. We slept at a nearby campsite the night before, and rose at 3am to be bused over and climb the short walk to the top. 

Built by the Jewish King Herod the Great, Masada was the last stand of Jewish rebels. In 70 CE, the Roman Empire conquered the Jewish Kingdom and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life. Today, only the Western Wall of the Temple remains, and for 2,000 years has been the holiest site in Judaism: Jews around the world pray in its direction. After the destruction, some rebels retreated to Masada, about 60 miles to the southeast of Jerusalem. Following a three-month siege, the Romans broke down the walls, and according to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, found hundreds of dead bodies. The rebels had killed themselves rather than submit to foreign rule. 

We hiked along the Roman siege ramp, with an open view of the Dead Sea to the east. A few kids brought shofars, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn that is only blown during the high holidays, and blew them now, symbolizing the return of the Jewish people to our homeland from exile. 

“Take a rock from under your foot,” Miriam, one of our tour guides, said on top of the mountain. This is illegal, since all rocks in a historical site are government property, but everyone took a few anyway and slipped them into their bags. 

“This rock has been part of the Jewish people’s history for thousands of years,” she told us. “When you take this rock and keep it with you, you remember how important this place is to our people. The land does not belong to us; we belong to the land.” 

Two weeks later, when I heard from a Palestinian man who lives in the West Bank, I heard those words in a new way. 

On top of Masada, hearing the shofar blowing, seeing the Dead Sea below, we prayed facing north to Jerusalem, toward the Kotel. Yet looking east from Masada, I saw little twinklings in the desert sand dotting the base of brick-red mountains on the other side: Arab villages in the Kingdom of Jordan. What did the people who lived there think of our group? Who was I to a Palestinian in East Jerusalem, looking out over the city in Yad VaShem, having this spiritual experience? A tourist? A Jew visiting his homeland? Or an occupier? 

Life in the Envelope

They told us to spend money when we visited Sderot, in southern Israel. It’s a poor city, only a mile from Gaza and the target of frequent rocket attacks. Prices are high—my lunch was $25—but you don’t feel bad shelling out a few extra shekels. 

Before stepping off the bus in the Gaza Envelope, the region of Israeli cities and communities bordering Gaza, we were told how to defend ourselves in case of an attack. “If you hear the air siren,” our security guard told us, “get to the nearest shelter as quickly as possible. If you can’t, lie flat on the ground with your hands over your head.” I’m still not sure how lying flat will protect you from rockets, but we practiced it anyway. 

After walking around Sderot, spending money, and hearing from locals about life there, we went to a children’s playground. A play structure shaped like a caterpillar doubles as a reinforced bomb shelter. Kids can climb on it or run inside if the siren suddenly sounds. 

I don’t know whether any of the people we spoke to in Sderot were killed on October 7th.

Differing Histories

We spent one sweltering day in Gush Etzion, a group of Israeli settlements in the West Bank built by Jewish immigrants in the 1930s. In 1948, Jewish residents of Gush Etzion were massacred by Arab armies, as part of a larger attack on the newly declared Jewish state.  

The 1948 conflict is known as the War for Independence to Israelis and the “Nakba,” or disaster, for Palestinians. More than 700,000 Palestinians were driven or fled from their homes, with atrocities committed on both sides. The right of return for Palestinians and their descendants remains a point of contention in the ongoing struggle. 

It shook me to think that my connection to my homeland could deny someone else theirs.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank. Under the Oslo Agreement of 1995 (signed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassar Arafat), Gush Etzion was to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority along with much of the rest of the West Bank, yet it never has been. Under more right-wing Israeli governments, including the current one, settlers have been encouraged to intimidate or even attack Palestinians to push them off the land.

The history of peace attempts, like the land, is disputed: the Israelis, alongside American mediators, claim that Arafat rejected several deals that would have resulted in a Palestinian state controlling nearly all of the West Bank, with exceptions for some older settlements. From the Palestinian perspective, any Jewish settlement or Israeli control over the West Bank encroaches on Palestinian statehood. Most nations (including the U.S. under President Biden) consider Israeli settlements to be illegal, as does the Israeli Supreme Court.

Where Peace Might Begin

Older than many other settlements, most of which were built by Jewish Israelis after 1967, Gush Etzion has been both a thriving village and a hotspot for violence. We campers visited the Roots organization, a community’s response to this situation, where Jewish Israeli settlers and Palestinians come together to share their experiences. 

We first heard the familiar Jewish story from a female settler: that the settlers believe the Jewish people have a claim to the entire land of Israel, and she, embracing that, lives here. Life for Jews in Gush Etzion, she said, is fairly normal. They live their lives, go to work, and send their kids to Jewish schools. The houses have outdoor pools to deal with the heat, and the heavy military presence is there to keep the peace.

Next, a Palestinian man in his late 20s stood up to tell us a different story. “I remember the protests during the Second Intifada when I was a child,” he said, “the ones where my friends were killed by Israeli soldiers.” His view of Israel was as a powerful invader who conquered his homeland. Life was difficult, he said, and even the simplest shopping trip could be interrupted by the omnipresent Israeli Defense Forces maintaining the unjust status quo. “You’re telling me this isn’t a military occupation?” he asked. 

Somehow this was the first time I had ever considered that idea myself. The paradox of coexisting, contradictory truths was disconcerting, especially after being raised wholly on one side. It shook me to think that my connection to my homeland could deny someone else theirs. 

The settler woman and Palestinian man ended by telling us their story together. Their societies are in conflict, but the two are friends anyway, brought together for peacemaking by Roots. “It all begins with acknowledging the mutual truth of each other’s experience,” they told us, “even if we disagree.” 

“We have a saying at Roots: the land does not belong to either of us, but we belong to the land.” The statement suggests where peace might begin: not with a single agreement, but with a constant process of realigning society, even on an individual level, to solve these conflicts. As a Jew who has his own connection to the land of Israel, I believe I have to recognize the equal claim any Palestinian has to the same place. I don’t know what that will look like, whether it’s one state where all are treated equally or two separate nations, but it cannot look like it does now.

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