A Long Time Coming…

Well, it has been a really long time since I wrote…  I was hoping I could post something after the fact, but one thing led to another and life as a Westtown student kept getting in the way.  So where do I stand now?  I think I will start by saying that this trip has been one of the most valuable experiences of my Westtown career.   It is all well and good to learn about social injustice issues from the safety of a classroom, but to truly understand one has to be on the ground, feeling the experience.  A quote that I love (and have no idea where it came from or if I am getting it perfectly correct) is: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, let me do it and I will understand.”  I feel like I now understand, on a level I never could have before.

The question that this begs, of course, is now that I have this experience and understanding, what do I do with it?  How do I more forward and live my life in the light of this and what can I do for change?

One initiative that we learned about while there is called the BDS Movement (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions), which is aimed at gaining human rights for the Palestinians through the means of pressuring Israel through the only means we have: their wallets (for those interested in more information, their website:  < http://www.bdsmovement.net/ >).  To this end, and couple of friends of mine from the trip and I are beginning an attempt to bring this movement to Westtown.  So what does that mean?  We are still in the planning stages, but the end goal would involve convincing the school to examine its investment portfolio and divest from corporations who are supporting actions by the Israeli government that propagate the crisis (ie.  Caterpillar, which is developing remote controlled bulldozers for the Israeli army’s housing demolitions).  Will it work?  I honestly don’t know.  I don’t even know yet if there is anything offensive in the schools investment portfolio, but it is worth a try.

One of the ways I am trying to live my life is to serve as a representative of a more complete view of the problem than most Americans get via our wonderful news media (I’m not being sarcastic there… not at all…).  An example of this is when a few weeks back a few members of our group gave a presentation to the school Board of Trustees where we shared some of our stories and answered questions (and which I was blessed to be a part of).  Another example of how we should (and are) be living is when some other members (whom I was unfortunately not among) went to Wilmington Friends and spent the day talking to some of the classes there.

It may sound a little corny and clichéd, but awareness really is an invaluable thing.  It is a crime when good people who know better keep silent, and therefore share I shall.

Assalamu alaikum.

Ramallah 1

As predicted, now that we are staying with families we have much better access to the internet, and so I will be able to write quite regularly for the next five days, at least.  We left Bethlehem this morning, and arrived at the Ramallah Friends School this afternoon, where I met my host family and came home with them.  After a good dinner and an evening walking around the city/eating amazing pastry, I find myself here, getting ready to go to bed and prepare for visiting classes tomorrow.  In many ways I feel like the time in Ramallah will be a highlight of this trip (if I can say that there is only one…); we really get a chance to interact with kids our own age, and get for form real connections over more time than just one hour long information session.

In reply to my last post, I was asked what an individual can do to reduce the violence, and my answer is still this: it is to do whatever possible to work against the dehumanization of people on BOTH sides.  Why?  The human brain has safeguards built into it which make it extremely difficult to kill another human being.  There are two big things which enable a person to take a life: societal/group acceptance (lack of which is what led to so much PTSD in Vietnam vets.) and the dehumanization of the other person. (that info came from a book called On Killing, the author of which I do not remember).  It stands to logic, therefore, that if we can attack those two factors, then people will find extreme violence much easier.  Earlier today we also visited Yad Vishem, the Holocaust Memorial museum just outside of Jerusalem.  In it, we were taught of the extreme lengths that the Nazi command took in order to make everybody believe that the Jewish race was not human, and in many ways succeeded, thus empowering the average soldier to commit some of the atrocities which they did.  The much-repeated phrase about the Holocaust is “never again” (which I find ironic, because one of the things they talked about quite a bit was walling off ghettos and blocking travel in and out of  – cough cough – Gaza… but that’s a rant that I don’t think I will go into right now).  Seeing as how it was the dehumanization of Jews which permitted the Holocaust to take place, should not the Israeli government be a little more sensitive to the fact that they are dehumanizing themselves in they eyes of the Palestinians through the vessel of the soldiers, at the checkpoints and occupying the West Bank during the second Intifada?

Err… Sorry, got a bit off track to answering the question there.  What can one actually do to help this.  In all honesty, I do not really know.  There are many organizations working for nonviolence, human rights, etc. (Rabbis for Human Rights, for one), and supporting such a group could help.  One could also pressure our government to squeeze Israel much harder in terms of following UN resolutions and ending the occupation/oppression through the venue of the $3 billion of our tax dollars we give to Israel to bankroll their military each year (please tell me I’m not the only one a teensy bit uncomfortable with this… especially with our current economic situation/budget deficit?).  That all said, there are probably other things one can do, but I am not really there yet in my thinking: I am still in the processing and gathering of information stage, not the solution finding one yet.  I shall keep this on a back burner, and who knows, maybe I will think of something with time.

Ok.  Bed, as I have school tomorrow :).

Assalamu alaikum.

Where to Begin?

Wow.  Alright.  So.  I will start by apologizing for not being able to write more often, but our time here is so budgeted down, it is almost impossible to sit down at a computer and actually draft something with any content at all.  I hope that this will get easier in the second half of our trip, with greater access to computers, but we shall see.  I promise that I will try to write a massive post at the end summing everything up and including anything which I am sure to have missed or not had time to cover.

Ok.  So.  I have to say, and the past few days have brought this to life, that one of the greatest strengths of what we are doing is how many different people and viewpoints we are hearing from.  We have heard from an old Jewish Kibutsim (who had four sons and a husband  serve in the IDF), a bright young Arab-Israeli (and Arab with Israeli citizenship) lawyer, a Palestinian schoolteacher, and old holocaust survivor and artist, a Rabbi who has dedicated his life to advocating for human rights, an Israeli settler, a family of Greek Orthodox Christians who have been in Beit Sadour (right outside Bethlehem) for eight generations (who also happen to be the host family, from whose house I am writing), and several high school members of a traditional dance troupe.

Looking at the above list, it seems almost impossible to even begin to articulate all of the different ideas and viewpoints expressed by them (it would take me many hours, and I do eventually need to get to bed as we have an early start tomorrow).  Therefore, right now I will simply address what I see, as of right now, is the main most fundamental root of the problem, which can be glimpsed in various ways by what almost everybody had to say.  That root is this: the dehumanization of the “other side” and the quite high level of ignorance to all aspects of the issue by almost every party (of course, the less you know the easier it becomes to be sure you know what is right… the more I learn, the more I have to think and question, and the muddier the waters become.)

In any conflict there is dehumanization/ignorance of the “other side”, from the conquests of the Romans to the Civil Rights Movement to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It is much easier to stand at a checkpoint as an Israeli soldier and causally refuse passage to anybody if all you know of the “other” is the memory you have as a child of watching a bus on the opposite side of the street explode and 20 people die; just as it is much easier to blow up that bus if all you see is the soldier who allowed your baby to die in your arms as you are trying to bring him to a hospital in Jerusalem by heartlessly refusing your pleas to let you through.  Ah, but wait: there in that very example you see the cycle; a cycle which only deepens the level of misunderstanding on either side and worsens the problem.

One thing is becoming clear to me: the more I learn, the better I understand how little it is I actually know, and how two weeks will only the a drop in the proverbial ocean of what there is to know, hear and see.  That said, read what is about to follow carefully, as it may well be the most important thing I write about this trip: at the risk of sounding clichéd, I lay on you one task; that task is to NOT simply accept things at face value.  Question everything you hear, because if you look closely enough you will find a contradiction and counterargument for everything, and it is only after sifting through all of the information available with the finest comb ever made that you will find the grain of sand that is your truth.

With that I shall leave you now, as I do need to sleep tonight.  Thank you for reading (I do understand that it is probably frustrating to hear me tell you to go out and get many viewpoints and then not have time to share the ones I have seen, but please give me time, I swear I will do what I can to fix this over the next week or two).  As always, any input (comments, questions, etc. etc. etc.) is greatly appreciated.

Assalamu alaikum (roughly: peace be with you)

Jerusalem, Take One

It took 9 hours, 58 minutes and 9 seconds of airtime, but we finally arrived in Tel Aviv.  Our first day in Jerusalem was relativly relaxed, with a short bus ride to the hotel (the distances here are amazingly short) and then a walk around the old city after we checked in.  The Old city of Jerusalem is an absolutely beautiful place, and the best way I have of describing it is by quoting one of my friends when she said “why don’t they make cities like this anymore?”  The streets are all narrow stone, are covered over half the time and are swarming with shops.  Each shop is about six feet wide and fifteen deep, and seems like it has more stuf in it than most modern department stores. They are filled with an interesting aroma, a blend of smoke, foods (of an amazing variety), and something I can’t quite place.

Today (Wednesday) we took a rather extensive tour of the Old City in the morning, visiting the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I am short on time, I won’t go into great detail here, but will just say that the sights were mind blowing.  One of the moments I remember well was when I walked by an Israeli soldier (all over the old city) and realized that the kid was exactly the same age as me.  Were I an Israeli, I would be in his place right now (they have compulsory service requirements).

During the second part of the day, we were given a talk and tour by an organization of Israeli Jews against the Home Demolition policies of Israel.  The level to which Israel goes to control the Palestinian population is truly scary.  One of the most powerful stops on the tour was to get right up to the Wall, called, depending on who you ask, the “Security Wall”, the “Separation Wall”, the “Apartide Wall”, or (if you are me) the “Berlin Wall, Take Two”.  The wall is a massive, ugly slab of concrete toped with barbed wire slicing the landscape in two.

Unfortunately, my computer time is going to run out in about 30 seconds, so I will post this for now and try to promise more to come.

Opening Thoughts

Greetings all!  My name is Benjamin, a Westtown senior from Massachusetts.  For my senior project trip, I am headed off to Israel, Palestine, and Jerusalem.  With me will be going 16 (!) of my fellow students and four faculty/adult chaperones.  I cannot even begin to express how excited I am that this trip is going, and how much gratitude I have for those who worked tirelessly to make it a possibility.  Let me just say thank you now.

So, why, out of the hundreds of possible things I could be doing with my senior project time, did I choose this particular project?  The reason is both quite simple, and of course, more complex.  The simple reason is this:  I feel that this trip will effectively bring my time at Westtown together as I seek closure as I prepare to graduate.  So what does that mean?  First off, I have taken several classes relevant to what I will be doing and…    Wait.  I have yet to really share what I am doing there, haven’t I.

The trip will visit many different locations within Israel and Palestine, and some time in Jerusalem as well.  I won’t give away all of the details here, but a basic overview includes spending several days at the Ramallah Friends School (a sister school to Westtown in the West Bank which has been sending an exchange student every year to Westtown for a while now), swimming in the Dead Sea, climbing the fortress at Masada, visiting a Palestinian Refugee Camp and an Israeli settlement, meeting and speaking with various religious leaders, and, of course, having a general good time.  You will, of course, get all of the details as I go.

Now.  As I was saying.  In many of my classes I have studied material relevant to the conflict that has been troubling the region for over 60 years now, and the various people who call the land their home.  My goal in regards to this, then, is to go in and tie everything I have learned (in history classes, religion classes, etc.) together and come away with a more complete and true picture of exactly what is happening in that part of the world.

On a more spiritual level, I see spirituality as the connection that two completely different people are able to make meeting for the first time (and every time after that).  I am hoping that this trip will expose me to a vast array of people, worlds apart from myself, with whom I will be able to connect and learn from.  Also, I hope to be challenged on as many levels as possible, and this trip seemed the one to do it.  Challenged on an intellectual level, with all the many things I will be learning; challenged on an emotional level, with some of the sights we might see (especially in the refugee camp); and of course, as I just mentioned, a spiritual level as well.

Well, that is all I shall say for now.  I will try to write as often as I can, although I cannot guarantee I can get to a computer every day (my trip leaders have said every other, but we shall see on that).  Any feedback you would like to offer would be more than welcome, and I will try (emphasis on the try part) to get back to people/answer any questions people might have (that might happen post-fact, though).