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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Eretz Israel: Camels, conflict and contradictions

JERUSALEM - "How do I explain the things I've seen?"

Coming back to the United States after six weeks of studying and traveling in Israel, I repeatedly asked myself this question as friends and family inquired about my experiences abroad. Most people simply wanted to know about the "coolest thing" I had seen, about how often I "felt in danger" and whether I "had fun." First of all, there were only a handful of times I felt truly in danger. Despite what you see in the news, Israelis do not have to dodge Scud missiles and a hail of bullets every time they want to go to the grocery store. You're thinking of Detroit. Secondly, while my time in Israel was filled with life-changing experiences, I believe it would be inaccurate to categorize many of them as "fun." Rather, the six weeks I spent in Israel were the most transformational and confusing period of my life.

I guess the best way I can describe my trip to Israel is as one walking, talking, breathing, bleeding, beautiful, breathtaking and (occasionally) exploding contradiction. Let's start with religion. It was surreal and deeply spiritual visiting the holiest sites of three major faiths: Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. Beyond admiring the beauty of the Dome of the Rock and watching Jews worship at the Western Wall (Judaism's holiest site), being able to walk in Jesus' footsteps, to follow the echoes of his life from Bethlehem to Calvary, was something truly special. Praying in the tomb of Jesus' resurrection may not have been "fun," but it was unlike anything I've ever experienced. 

Here comes the contradiction. If my time in Israel helped show me the beautiful peaks of faith and religion, it also showed me their depths. Every ounce of spirituality seemed to be diluted by an ounce of bickering and violence. Ironically, it was in some of the world's most sacred locations that I witnessed human behavior at its very worst.  It almost seemed like the holier the sites I visited, the more appalling and childish this behavior became. The Church of the Nativity, for example, was like a One Direction concert for religious pilgrims and old Eastern European women, a blur of shawls and fake teeth as people pushed, clawed, screamed and budged one another to enter the cave of Jesus' birth.  At the Western Wall, one day it was jammed with Jewish faithful, the next it was jammed with soldiers and barricades, remnants of a fatal shooting that had occurred just hours earlier. In the West Bank city of Hebron, I still remember my shock at seeing several Orthodox Jews walking to synagogue with assault rifles casually strapped across the prayer shawls on their backs. It was the equivalent of seeing Fr. Hesburgh strolling through the library with a flamethrower (maybe he just needed something bigger to light his cigars with?).

"Do people have any idea what's going on over here?"

Is it possible to truly describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a person who hasn't witnessed it firsthand? If it were possible, would that person even be interested? I believe this is the reason why it has been so difficult for me to talk about my experiences in the Middle East. For six weeks, concrete walls, guard towers, barbed wire and military checkpoints became as common as traffic signs. For six weeks, I witnessed the humiliation of the Palestinian people, watching as they were harassed and profiled daily by Israeli soldiers, many of whom were younger than I. I visited a Palestinian marketplace covered by tarps and wire netting, not to shield from the weather, but to protect its residents from the refuse and excrement frequently thrown at them from above by militant Jewish settlers. These are not the Palestinian militants you hear about, either. These are not extremists that launch rockets from the Gaza Strip, nor are they criminals Israel must take decisive action to defend itself from. They are families trying to live the best they can in an environment of constant fear and uncertainty, clinging to the doctrine of sumud (Arabic for "steadfastness") in the hope one day the violence and bitterness will cease.

Conventional wisdom states it is rude to talk about religion and politics at the dinner table or at a social gathering. So, when people ask me about my time in Israel, I will continue to stick with stories about the crazy, amazing, touristy and sometimes dangerous things I experienced there. I'll talk about how I rode a camel named Fuzdook, a grumpy beast that later tried to bite my arm off like Rosie O'Donnell attacking a CiCi's pizza buffet. I'll tell people about floating in the Dead Sea, watching the sun set over the Jordanian mountains, or having my dinner conversations drowned out by the Muslim call to prayer wailing from nearby minarets. Most importantly, I'll show people the selfie I took at the Syrian border ("Chilling in the Israeli-Syrian demilitarized zone #superblessed"). It was these experiences that made my trip incredible, but they were still only part of the picture.

It seemed like every person I met in Israel had the same parting instructions for me. "Go home and tell people what you've seen here," they would plead, as if my words somehow held the power to change things in their fragile, turbulent little country. This article may be a start, but beyond that, I guess I haven't really told anyone much of anything. So, if you want to know what made my trip to Israel not merely incredible, but life-changing, transformational and perspective-altering, then don't just ask whether I had fun. Ask me whether Israel changed my life. That's a question I would be more than happy to answer. 

Contact Dan Brombach at