Throwback travel post: Sticks and Semantics

Originally found at https://medium.com/@tag3773/sticks-and-semantics-4e748b38463

This is the last I think of my Israel posts, it somewhat serves as a resume, but perhaps not quite.

March 2014 – Israel

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. We recite this as a chant to deflect the harmful words from kids coming into their own sense of identity during middle school. But I think now than ever that phrase has lost its power. I have felt words hurt my core and seen it make the faces of my friends cringe. Certain words have been strategically utilized to pierce at these identities that have been so weighted with pain and love. I pay attention to semantics often when people speak but look at it from more of a cultural standpoint or how their native language influences how they express themselves in English (which I have gotten to do a lot of this trip!), but words have never struck me so much. This wasn’t immediate either. In the beginning of this trip, so many things passed me by or just plain confused me, but seeing so many different opinions and having them critiqued and discussed has been eye-opening. But the best part has been analyzing them with the other trekkers and getting background and input from the organizers along the way.

What I think has been a great juxtaposition has been interacting with the land that has been so contested and the people who inhabit it on a (somewhat) apolitical level. I have been overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness we have received from everywhere we’ve been and the general excitement to speak to us and share their opinions. Communities have welcomed us with open arms as they did today at Arraba. The community council center welcomed us with a speech (although long and a bit too biased towards victimization), a whole delegation, and a dance called the dabke. Afterwards they invited us down to dance with them and it was so easy to forget about the conflict as we jumped and struggled through that dance. A few younger kids even joined us, though most were too shy and ran away.

Jeremy spoke a bit about the work he does with “Ultimate Peace” and I would love to know what the initial days are like and when these prejudices start settling in. Such strong rhetoric is often used by adults all the time and seeing Nuseir’s brother hanging with us throughout everything that was said made me wonder how much of it seeps in and twists the hearts of children. But it’s good to know that work like this is continuously being done.

We’ve spoken a lot about territories, conflicts, history, but I think the humanity discussion is what has been missing in this discussion from the higher level. While those who are on the ground notice the lack of interaction between the communities and the difficulty that causes, it seems most of our speakers have missed touching on that aspect. Not only are there human lives dying, but human lives being deeply affected by the situation every day. And human lives not being affected by it every day. Those are people who may be able to ignore or move past these situations and never have to engage with the situation on a face to face level. As much as we engage with the issues, it is even easier to see how quickly a disconnect forms. We went to the Golan Heights today (Wednesday) which was absolutely beautiful. There we were briefed by an IDF soldier on the situation regarding the border. Yet two seconds afterwards we are exclaiming about how beautiful the sights are and not how that green land across the fence drips with the blood of children from the Syrian civil war and how that border is just one of many that divide and isolate communities.

More interesting was how we had to create that divide ourselves. We were advised not to speak of how we had visited the settlements to the Palestinians and not to wear our Friends of the IDF hats when we went to the Arab village. Furthering that gap made me feel like we had to pick a side and as if we were furthering the disconnect apparent in these two communities. It probably isn’t our job as outsiders and especially Americans to pick either of the two sides, but I would have hoped that both sides would be able to accept the other as a reality that you have to face even though it’s uneasy. It’s not necessary to “shove” it in people’s faces all the time, but pushing a problem away does not make it leave. It is often what we do in America with our internal problems. We either don’t engage with them, or demonize and dehumanize those involved with stereotype which makes them easier to oppress, but each day these people are walking by and suffering because of the neglect we fail to address.

At dinner, we had of course plenty of food (‘twas awesome) and we sat with a Palestinian-German guy who breached the topic of race (in relation to Americans) which I think has been interesting to look at in the case of Arab-Israelis in Israel. They receive less funding and have poorer infrastructure like a lot of communities of color in the United States even though in both states, the groups have “equal rights’. Nuseir’s English teacher spoke about wanting his state to respect him. How can a state expect its citizens to respect the institution when it doesn’t even respect them by giving them de facto equal rights? I’ve seen that a lot in communities of color, love for the state yet anger about how they have been treated and it leaves citizens wondering, where do they fit in? Do they matter? Why are you not investing in me as you do in the other? That affects the psyche just as a barbed fence might (although not in the same way). W.E.B. Dubois wrote famously that “I am in Harvard, but not of it.” This phenomenon seems to happen often in Israel with groups existing in but not of Israel and it begs the question of who really is Israel? And who can be Israel? While I feel that the answer is an inclusive one, I hope that all citizens of Israel will feel that way as well, having a state that represents them and advances them.

At times, I think that my view of Israel might be pessimistic, but it’s not. This country is painfully beautiful, and I have faith in its people who are conscious, engaged, and compassionate that they can bridge these gaps and foster communities and states that thrive, learn and build from one another.

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