Meretz USA Youth Symposium
Whereas the PP&J [Birthright] program had looked at different facets of Israeli society and activities within Israel itself, the Youth Symposium focused on the hardships of Palestinian life in the West Bank and the efforts of Israeli activists to alleviate them.
This tour was premised on the desire of young progressive American Jews to travel to the Palestinian territories and the lack of opportunities to do so with organizations not antagonistic to Israel. Although the trip revealed many injustices, it also highlighted a face of Israel deeply committed to social equality and peace. The tour guides included Israelis from the Geneva Initiative, Rabbis for Human Rights, Machsom Watch, Breaking the Silence, and Taayush. They stressed the importance of showing the Palestinians – who typically encounter only Israelis who are soldiers or settlers – to Israelis and Jews concerned for their well being. Much of the trip painted a harsh reality, but it also showed the best of Israeli society.
The first day of the Youth Symposium was spent in East Jerusalem, learning about the separation barrier from the Geneva Initiative organization, a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort that provides a detailed model peace agreement. And we learned about the demolition of Palestinian homes from Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli rabbis who promote social justice in Israel from a Jewish religious perspective.
Most strikingly, we visited the Arab town of Abu Dis, which is cut right down the middle by the separation barrier, as well as a family whose home had been demolished that morning. In Abu Dis, the separation barrier takes the form of a wall, which severely disrupts the lives of its residents. For instance, children who have school in the other section of town must travel a long distance for their education. Meanwhile, the demolished house was a particularly difficult sight.
Our second day was spent in with Yehuda Shaul of the progressive activist group, Breaking the Silence. The contested area of Hebron is essentially a ghost town – entirely segregated. Palestinians cannot drive in 60 percent of the city and they cannot walk on certain streets.
Our third and fourth days were spent visiting checkpoints, the South Mount Hebron area and the olive groves near the Palestinian village of Qaryot. Hanna Barag, an activist with Machsom Watch, took us to the Etzion District Coordinating Office (DCO) that regulates the flow of Palestinians from Bethlehem who wish to work in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. There we learned how difficult it is to get a permit – particularly for anyone under the age of 27 (because the Israelis have found that most suicide bombers are young people).
Visiting the South Mount Hebron area was particularly illuminating. Its residents are primarily Palestinian farmers and herders, who have lived in caves and shacks for generations. These are the “invisible people” – neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli government looks out for their well-being – and, in the area we visited, they are being moved to the town of Yatta as settlers come in and take their land.
Each of these events broadened the insight of the trip’s participants into the nuances of the occupation. Although terrorism is a legitimate and constant concern, the reality of Palestinian life is particularly bleak. Significantly, the trip also demonstrated the remarkable vision and commitment of the Israelis working for justice and the fulfillment of the Zionist ideal.
As was the case with PP&J, there are other groups that run tours in the West Bank. There’s the International Solidarity Movement, which does aid work in the West Bank, and there are trips like Birthright Unplugged, which specifically presents itself as the “anti-Birthright.” These tours address important issues but promote a partisan pro- Palestinian perspective.
The Meretz USA Youth Symposium gave these young Jews a chance to view the occupation from a different political perspective. It did not espouse nor cultivate anti-Zionist or anti-Israel perspectives in its participants. As we explored the suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people by the occupation, we gave our trip an important additional dimension, highlighting in particular the sector of Israeli society that is working to change the reality of life in the West Bank and to end the occupation — those working to better and strengthen Israeli society by helping the Palestinians.
AMY K is director of programs and communications for Meretz USA. She graduated from Swarthmore College in June 2006. The Union of Progressive Zionists will be partnering with the New Israel Fund to run another Taglit-Birthright trip this winter.