By Abby Fisher ‘19
When you’ve made some of the most important friendships of your life with some of the most empathetic and intelligent people you will ever know, it’s painful when you have to confront the traumas of those people. Even more challenging is hearing stories of personal pain that seem to conflict with each other. This was my experience at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine, where I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a series of intense and emotional dialogue sessions as well as sports and team-building programs. My bunk was made up of three Israelis, three Palestinians, two Egyptians, and myself, an American Jew. Over the course the summer, I cultivated meaningful relationships with people whom I’d repeatedly been told refused to “sit at the table” with Jews and Israelis. They sat at the table with us and we even shared meals.
On October 2nd, 2000, 17-year-old Asel Asleh was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces while wearing a Seeds of Peace t-shirt. He was later buried in that same shirt: a shirt identical to one I wore nearly every day this summer. I never knew Asel personally, but I feel a connection to him that only people who have experienced Seeds of Peace share. Over the past month, my Facebook feed has flooded with disturbing footage of and hundreds of articles about the Palestinian March of Return protests that began on March 30th along the Gaza border. One article explained that 26 Palestinians, most of whom were Hamas operatives, had been shot by the IDF. Another claimed that there were 32 casualties, and none involved with Hamas. A third claimed that there had been only 17 deaths, each one warranted. As I read through these articles with their differing death counts, I was painfully reminded of Asel’s death. I feel like a traitor seeing my friends’ posts praising Israel. I wonder why I can’t seem to share those same links, despite the fact that I’m deeply invested in the future of the Jewish state.
On the one hand, I feel a persistent pressure from certain members of my family and of our school community to denounce the border protests, to dismiss those killed as Hamas operatives, and to stand unequivocally proud and supportive of Israel in my blue and white shirt on Yom Ha’atzmaut. On the other hand, I hear the voices of the friends I made this past summer begging me not to betray their trust by drowning out their stories. I feel them asking me to stand in solidarity with them in their fight for equal rights. And I see an image of Asel in a Seeds of Peace t-shirt tainted by blood.
As last summer’s experience slips further and further into the recesses of my memory, I struggle to hold on to the lessons I learned. Although I deeply value each and every one of these lessons, the most crucial and simultaneously the most difficult one to hold onto is the power of the word ‘and.’ My Palestinian friends cried as they talked of neighbors and cousins, all of whom had been unjustly killed in the conflict. Mere minutes later, the voices of my Israeli friends cracked as they shared their stories of family and friends who had also been murdered. It’s then that the word ‘and’ can at once save you and make discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all the more heartbreaking.
Since returning from camp, I’ve felt vulnerable, outnumbered, and out of place in nearly all of the conversations about Israel we have had at school. At first, I thought this feeling was a result of Seeds confusing my identity, making me unsure of who I was and what I believed. As time went on, however, I realized that my profound discomfort sprang from my complete and often devastating awareness that I know exactly what I believe and that those beliefs are utterly contradictory.
I feel safe because of the existence of the state of Israel, and my Palestinian friends feel unsafe because of the existence of the state of Israel. I believe Hatikvah is a beautiful and stirring song, and I feel uncomfortable singing it. Asel Asleh was unarmed and did not throw rocks and was shot at close range by an IDF soldier. In all of these cases, the truth of the first clause does not undermine the truth of the second. Despite our school’s emphasis on pluralism, too many of us are afraid of being plural, of mourning the losses of IDF soldiers and the loss of innocent Palestinian lives. This three-letter-word, ‘and,’ is by no means the solution to a decades-long conflict, but it’s a way to rid ourselves of the reductive binaries that make up our discourse surrounding Israel. We can’t achieve the coexistence of two peoples with conflicting identities in one land until we allow the coexistence of two conflicting truths in one sentence.