Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Complex Elements, Worlds Apart

Carmel Market in Tel Aviv

Amazing hummus at Abu Hassan in Jaffa 

Jaffa Port
Dizengoff Square
The Kotel on Simchat Torah
Outside the Old City of Jerusalem 

I recently returned from an exhilarating weekend trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with other Yahel participants in Lod and Rishon. While I had a lot of fun immersing myself in these extraordinary cities, going to one after the other also made me focus on their drastic differences. I have always known and heard about the contrasting natures of these two cities, but this time I was able to see the differences much more clearly. These differences were brought further to fruition this week after the devastating terrorist attacks in Jerusalem's Old City, which had a major impact on my group's plans.

To me, this past weekend brought brand new meaning to the word complexity. As one who spent his entire college years studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am very aware of the complex nature of the conflict. After living in Jerusalem for a semester, I am especially aware of Jerusalem's unpredictability and the risks that arise when going to such a contentious city. After all my years of studying about and traveling to Israel, I thought my response to this situation was a clear one: to go to Jerusalem despite the terrorism. I knew this would be a risky move, and one that would involve many precautions in order to ensure my safety. However, after living in Jerusalem and hearing about the increased security presence there for the holiday, I was confident that I would be safe if I avoided certain areas that have been historically prone to tension. Jerusalem is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I knew my heart would have been filled with so much sorrow and regret if I decided not to be there to celebrate Simchat Torah as I planned.

What made this decision complex was taking what others had to say into consideration. First, I thought about what my program recommended I should do. While I was in Tel Aviv, I received messages from my advisors and counselors saying I should be very cautious should I choose to go. My program gave me much independence in this regard, but it was also clear that they would rather I skip the Jerusalem leg of the trip and not put myself in harm's way. Second, I looked at the news, seeing what reports on the ground had to say about the situation. Perusing articles from many sources, I got very contradictory information. Some sources were describing the horrific and dangerous scene in Jerusalem, while others were reporting about measures being taken to strengthen security for the holiday celebration. This turned out to provide very little assistance, and I decided to turn to other means to make my final decision.

The issue that mattered most to me was what the rest of my group was thinking. From the get go, both the Lod and Rishon groups were very torn about what to do. This is partly because many of my fellow Yahelniks have not been to Israel many times before, and were anxious about the possibility of traveling to a city where sparks could easily fly at any second. In the end, many of my group members, including all the Rishon representatives who were with us, decided it was best not to go to Jerusalem. I respected their decision and their desire to stay safe. I also knew that part of the value of this trip would be the community aspect of the celebration, especially since these people have truly become family to me.

After the majority of our group decided not to go, I and four others were very on the fence. We truly wanted to experience what we knew would be a holiday celebration to remember, but at the same time we also knew it would be bittersweet to celebrate without our new family members as we planned. In the end, the five of us decided as a group that it would be best to go to Jerusalem for the holiday. This was a very hard decision to make with so many unpredictable pieces involved, but we realized how special this celebration would be and were willing to take the necessary precautions to enjoy Jerusalem in a safe manner.

One lesson this experience taught me is safety and security can be viewed in a variety of ways, especially in Israel. It amazes me how one just needs to travel the half-hour car ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to look at important issues through entirely new lenses. In Tel Aviv, the most I was concerned about safety was when I was guarding my possessions at the beach and trying to stay alert when walking around the city center late at night. In Jerusalem, I had no choice but to be concerned about safety, since I was walking near streets that days before had been the epicenter of mass terror.  In Tel Aviv, I was able to enjoy a relaxing couple of days sitting on the beach and witnessing many of the compelling sites, restaurants, and bars. In Jerusalem, while I was able to meaningfully celebrate the holiday through prayer at the Kotel and delicious meals with host families, it was impossible to escape the tension in the air from the recent events and specifically the notion held stubbornly by many that Arabs will continue to heartlessly kill innocent Jews. During my conversations with many people I met in the Old City, the idea of any effort to make peace with the Palestinians seemed like a naive dream that should be kept in fairytale books. At this time, it seemed that the world was divided between Jews and Arabs, and any membership of one group required hatred of the other.

Another lesson that I took note of is how powerful the emotional bond is with family and friends. When you are near a situation in which your life may be at risk, you for sure know who has your back, and who is there to give you support when you really need it. Throughout the weekend, I received multiple messages from family and friends asking me if my trip to Jerusalem was still on and telling me to stay safe. When hearing these thoughts, I felt really appreciative of all the love and care I have in my life.  I learned that though you may disagree with people some of the time or not talk to them much, if they really care about you they will be there for you when it counts, and that is truly a sign of having love in your life. I want to thank all of you who sent me messages and continue to give me your love and support.

In the end, I'm proud that I went to Jerusalem for Simchat Torah, and I'm proud of all the work I will be doing soon in Lod to promote a peaceful and stable society in Israel. Hopefully one day, through efforts such as mine designed to affect coexistence between Jews and Arabs, terrorism and violence in Israel will just be in the history books and never incorporated into the lives of innocent civilians. The principal of the Arab high school I visited today said something I found very wise. She said that children who throw stones don't have hope and know nothing but fear, and these children can only be cured through education. I truly hope that my work in Lod can help provide Arab and Jewish children the education they need to know that conflict is not the solution, and it is possible and necessary for both sides to coexist peacefully.

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