Beyond the binary: security and the Gaza border (day one)
Noah Kulwin, UC Berkeley ‘15
The first day of the J Street U Engage With Israel trip began as expected. The harassment about punctuality (“9:00 on the bus guys – seriously”), the long-ish bus rides, the unfamiliar surroundings. Yet I hadn’t known that our first visit would be to Israel’s south, my first time back to the area after living for a semester at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Instead of staying in the quasi-metropolis of the south, I explored for the first time the Jewish communities around the Gaza Strip and the multitude of challenges they face.
We met with several IDF soldiers who told us of weekly incursions into Israel. We were briefed on the latest security technology while overlooking a plume of white smoke, the evidence of a mortar fired just minutes before. We visited the police station in Sderot, whose back wall is lined with hundreds of Qassam rockets, their warped metal frames lined up on racks. And we spoke with peace activist Roni Kedar from the group Other Voice, which brings together Palestinians of Gaza and Israelis of the South – not an easy task on several levels. Since Hamas has taken over, not only is it very difficult for Palestinians to leave Gaza because of the blockade, but those that do for one of Other Voice’s seminars often face death threats upon return, charged with “collaborating with the enemy.”
Spending a semester of high school with NFTY in Israel, a semester at Ben-Gurion, many temple missions, and a summer with the Israel Scouts – I felt as if I had a firm command of the ins and outs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But over the last year and a half as I have come to become increasingly involved in the J Street U student movement, I have come to see things in a state of grey, as opposed to the black and white that I learned growing up. Now the more I study and am engaged by this conflict, the more I realize I have still to learn.
Through that time I have grown more and more frustrated with what it meant, in my community, to “critically engage” with Israel. My father is a rabbi of a large congregation. My mother is the director of admissions for the very NFTY high school program I went on. I was raised in the heart of the “Jewish Establishment.” In spite of the progressive values that I was taught and the culture of critical inquiry that shaped my education, when it came to Israel I learned instead of the terrible binary choice Israel faced. Either we have a blockade that prevents suicide bombers and kidnappings, or we let the Palestinians build schools and houses and suffer the consequences.
Yet in spite of my tendency to challenge the view that the rockets that fall on Southern Israel are evidence that Israel cannot make peace, I found the everyday struggles and problems of these communities quite moving. It would be arrogant to dismiss the concerns of those who send their children to schools shadowed by giant concrete slabs necessary to protect 4th graders from rockets. And this to me is perhaps the crux of the dilemma. As a representative of the pro-peace, pro-Israel student movement – how do I balance the concerns of the residents of Southern Israel communities like Sderot with the traumas and struggles of Palestinians in Gaza?
Over dinner in Jerusalem with an official from UNRWA we learned that the Israeli blockade did not merely prevent adequate human development in the Gaza Strip, but also exacerbated the very terrorism problem it sought to prevent – by radicalizing elements of Palestinian society as well as forcing residents of the Gaza Strip to turn to Hamas and the tunnels they manage in order to get basic building materials to rebuild their homes or create basic infrastructure.
This binary thinking – us versus them, security vs. peace – has quelled the kind of intellectual curiosity that the American Jewish community prides itself on. In the coming days of this trip in Israel it is inevitable that the conventional narrative I grew up with, of what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents, will be continually challenged. And I have no doubt my personal journey through the complexities and nuances of this issue will make me uncomfortable in ways that I still cannot anticipate. But nonetheless, I relish the opportunity to learn and discuss these topics, and to find a way to use what I have learned to shape and engage my own Jewish communities both on campus, and at home.