When I was 19, I was confused. I always thought this confusion would come earlier, and that by ending teenage boredom, so would the confusion stop. But I was oh so wrong. I turned 19 right after I finished high-school, just as I came out of the closet and right before the compulsory conscription into the Israeli Army. I have only been in Israel for two years after three very transformative years in Australia, and I did not know where and if I belonged.
So, I decided to take a gap year, and see where things lead me, and I would like to relate to you a little bit of the complexities of Israeli society. During this gap year, each of us had to visit on a place that they thought they would never go to. I decided to go to a Yeshiva (Religious Higher Education) in the illegal settlement of Har Bracha, pretty close to Nablus. The settlements are usually considered in the eyes of the world to be the biggest threat to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and as the most visible method of occupation.
During my childhood, I have visited settlements many times, as my aunties all lived there. I was not aware of the political context, and would always go in an armored vehicle, without much awareness to the world outside. As I grew older, and realized what these seemingly peaceful villages mean, I stopped visiting, and vowed to refrain from going to the West Bank until peace is achieved.
But, as I’ve said, I was confused, and my aspiration to understand was more important. I wanted to see reality, rather than read about it. I remember getting on the bus, the only secular person, in a bus without any Palestinians on it. Looking outside the window, I saw winding routes and beautiful, green terraces, and a great big wall. I then reached a checkpoint, and went through easily, then another, but still – no Palestinian in sight. I reached Har Brach, which is positioned on the top of a very big mountain, and looked around. The wind was so strong, I could barely hear myself breathing and there was so much fog creeping everywhere, as if the skies were telling me: “Your ignorance is bliss. Do not try and see too much, because it will hurt.”
Nonetheless, I was on a quest, and I started exploring. I went into this amazing hall, filled to the brim with young adults, just like me, hovering over Torahs and studying. All of a sudden I felt so different and alone. When was the last time I studied Torah? When was the last time I did anything Jewish whatsoever apart from enjoying the time off the holidays gave me? So I sat down next to a youngster, his hair trimmed short, a big Yarmulke (Kippah) on his head and glasses, which made his eyes look humongous – and started talking to him. Even though I interrupted him with his reading, there was not a chattier person than he, and we delved right into the issues that I wished to explore. We couldn’t agree to anything. I zigged, and he zagged. Whether we spoke about religion, economics or the conflict, it didn’t matter, because we were on opposite sides. But, at the end of the day, just before we went to sleep, I thought to myself: “what did I come here for?”. And I realized that I came, not to convince anyone, but to realize what I thought was right or wrong. And to be able to talk to someone else about it, and justify my position. Early next morning we both woke up and walked outside to look from the very top of the mountain. And then, to my right, I saw the red-roofed houses of the settlements, and to my left, I saw big Palestinian concrete houses. And from so far away, I could not see the people inside. And the only thought that I had was: “everyone is probably eating breakfast right now”. I told my friend that, and he just smiled and walked back down the hill. And I just kept on looking, and everything was so quiet.
And you know what? Six years later and I still don’t know where I belong – in this country? This nationality? This faith? This community? But, one thing I do know. That I could not have known me if I had not tried to get to know the other. And I wish us all, on YaLa’s birthday that we will strive for peace not only with those who speak the same language as we do, but more so with those who don’t. Those, who do not even recognize that elusive language, the language of peace, of understanding, of tolerance. That’s our mission, that’s our mountain to climb.