In my files I have a yellowed letter dated Sept. 10, 1978, from the office of the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel. An embossed seal, with olive branches cupping an ivory menorah, crowns the elegant letterhead.
“Dear Ms. Arellano” (my maiden name), Menachem Begin’s secretary had typed. “Before leaving for Camp David, the Prime Minister asked me to thank you for your letter of August 6 and for your sentiments and good wishes.” I blush to remember those sentiments.
I was a born-again Christian at Tufts University in Massachusetts that year, and many of us Christians were friends with the Jewish students. More than a third of the student population was Jewish, so we were naturally paired in dorm rooms, dining halls and college classes. We also felt a kind of spiritual kinship. “Remember, Jesus was not a Christian,” the evangelical minister on campus said. “He was Jewish.”
Newly enthralled by everything religious, I peppered my Jewish friends with questions about their traditions and history. I signed up for a Hebrew language class and pored over books and articles on the Holocaust, Zionism and the State of Israel. It was a compelling narrative: God was rescuing his chosen people, just as my highlighted and underlined Bible verses said he would.
In this state of spiritual exaltation, I wrote Mr. Begin. I told him about my studies and the Zion tree my roommate arranged to have planted “in the fallow hills of Jerusalem” on my 20th birthday. I thanked him for his leadership and concluded by saying that I hoped to visit the Holy Land someday.
A Journey Beyond Bias
All that passed, as youthful obsessions often do. After college, I returned to my comfortable Catholic faith and gradually forgot about my Zionist leanings—until this summer, when I received an invitation to visit the Holy Land. It did not come from Israel, though. I was invited by Palestinian officials to join a faith-based tour for Christian journalists.
A tour hosted by Palestinians?
I was skeptical at first, but a few e-mail messages confirmed that it was a legitimate event backed by the U.S. Agency for International Develop-ment. It was part of a new initiative to revive the Palestinian economy, beginning with the tourism industry. Even the Israelis were on board under the banner of “economic peace” in the Middle East.
So I went. But almost immediately I found myself fretting about unexpected things. Like the Jewish settlements. When the guide announced that our bus was passing a settlement on the left, I leapt out of my seat on the opposite side for a better view. At first, I couldn’t locate it. Then the guide pointed to a massive compound straddling a hilltop in East Jerusalem.
It was disorienting. My mental image of a settlement was of a humble farming community in an uninhabited desert place, not a modern city of 40,000 on prime real estate. It is probably an exception, I thought to myself. But I could not help wondering: Is this where my Zion tree ended up—on one of these “fallow hills”?
Then there was the separation wall. The 440-mile concrete and coiled wire barrier was an arresting sight from either side. The guide claimed it choked commerce and isolated Palestinian families: “It’s like living in a prison or a ghetto.” I bristled at his choice of words. A more balanced account would have allowed that the wall prevented terrorist attacks, I thought. Still, it was an eyesore.
As the days passed I grew increasingly irritable. The guide’s monologues on the suffering of the Palestinian people, confiscated lands and bulldozed trees were annoying. I was here to see the holy sites of Judaism and Christendom, not to listen to propaganda.
By the time Israeli soldiers boarded our bus at a checkpoint outside Ariel, I was in no mood for political games. At all the other checkpoints, soldiers had merely glanced at our passports and waved us on. This time we were asked to disembark with all our personal belongings.
Grumbling, I collected my bags and followed my companions across the steaming asphalt to a cinderblock security station. We queued up to file through the lone metal detector, then waited to be interrogated by a stone-faced senior officer as she rifled through our bags. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Where are you going? Why are you going there?” An hour later we were permitted to return to the bus but were denied passage.
“Why wouldn’t they let us pass?” I asked the U.S.A.I.D. representative accompanying our group as we headed back to our seats.
“They won’t allow our Palestinian guide through,” he said carefully, picking his way through the words. “There are Jewish settlers up the road, and the soldiers believe our guide could be a threat.”
“So what’s the problem,” I blurted impatiently. “Can’t we just go on without him?”
I regretted my words at once. After an awkward silence, the U.S.A.I.D. rep answered, “We don’t want to do that. He hasn’t done anything wrong.” He was right, of course. I reddened and slunk into my seat.
What was happening to me? My ire should have been directed at the Israeli soldiers who had blocked our passage in order to protect the—for the first time I saw the need for a descriptive adjective—illegal settlers. Instead, I had turned on the Palestinian guide.
I was tired and a long way from home, yes; but a more accurate explanation of my agitation is that I was much further from the familiar stories of my college days. My misty Zionist narrative did not mention fortress-like settlements, graffiti-streaked walls and checkpoints. And it did not include indigenous Palestinians. In fact, it had explicitly denied their existence: “A land without people for a people without land.”
I slipped away from the group early that night to think. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that I had never moved beyond my youthful biases. If anything, much of what I had seen on television or read in newspapers since then had reinforced them: Israelis are our friends and noble allies; Palestinians are uncivilized and unreasonable—a “problem” to be dealt with. In the past few days, I had seen and heard things that challenged my biases, but I was afraid to let go of them.
The next day and from that day forward, I made an effort to engage our Palestinian guide and hosts in conversation. Where before I had huddled with my American companions, I now sought out and sat beside the Palestinians at our gatherings.
It was difficult at first. I think my hosts sensed my discomfort, my self-conscious attempt to reach across the divide. But they were eager to talk, to tell their stories. As they described the joys and challenges of their daily lives, I carefully wrote down their Arabic names and studied their lined faces. I leaned in when they showed me photographs of their children, and I shared photographs of mine. One night I recited a poem I had copied into my spiral notebook, “The Plea,” by Sue Sabbagh. My dinner companions nodded appreciatively and printed the names of their own favorite poets in my notebook: Imru’ al-Qais, Al-Mutanabbi, Mahmoud Darwish.
Slowly my defenses melted away. The more Palestinians I met and the more closely I listened, the easier it became to dismiss my sad caricatures of rock-hurling fanatics and fundamentalist terrorists.
This does not mean that I am now anti-Israel or pro-Palestine. If I learned anything this summer, it is that there are legitimate arguments and grievances on both sides and a dizzying history I’ll never master. The only thing I am fairly certain of is that Palestinians and Israelis will be living side-by-side for years to come. It will take a miracle for lasting peace to settle here, but this, at least, is one thing on which all who have any stake in the Holy Land agree: miracles have taken place here before.
I will forever remember one young mother, beaming with pride, who gestured to a seat beside her and said in her charming English, “Will you please to enjoy us here?” As I smoothed the fuzz on her infant’s perfect head, hope swelled in me for her, for her infant son, for all who live in this scarred, contested land.