I’ll admit: I wasn’t expecting to find much hope in Israel/Palestine.
Earlier this summer, I traveled to the Holy Land with a cohort of U.S.-based leaders within Reform Judaism or Black communities — two groups that share a history of working alongside each other for civil rights, both in the ’60s and today. The purpose of our trip was simple: to better understand the lived experience of people in Israel/Palestine who are caught between the giant power structures of the region’s longstanding conflict.
Many things about the trip surprised me: I wasn’t prepared for the open stares I received as a Black person walking around in the Middle East, a reminder that Black people can experience racism and feel unsafe anywhere. I wasn’t prepared for delicious hummus that tasted totally unlike the tubs I bought in the grocery store back home. Nor was I prepared to see what the occupation looked like during a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp; I’m not sure there’s a way anyone could prepare for that.
I especially didn’t expect to hear from so many people who believed justice and liberation was for everyone — Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. Like many people in the United States, most of what I know about Israel/Palestine comes from bursts of bad news headlines about rockets in Gaza or extremist rhetoric from both sides that further dehumanizes the region’s people.
Yet throughout our trip, I was amazed at the grassroots leaders, mainly women, working to deliver that desperately needed good news to their communities. Their witness was particularly poignant given the patriarchal context in which they worked. Many of the government officials we met with were men who seemed focused on who would get what in the region’s future; the women we met were empowering people in their communities to create change. The women worked to ensure people had what they needed to advocate for themselves and their communities, such as trauma-informed grief care or a legal system that recognized the rights of most marginalized in society.
On our first day, we went to Tel Aviv-Yafo where we were introduced to a woman I’ll call Sana. We were hot and jet lagged, but she welcomed us into a comfortable sitting room with low couches and pillows; a table in the middle of the room offered herbal tea and real coffee.
Like me, Sana had been trained as a social worker, but she’d given up her job — and spent all her money — to start the center where we sat: a space for Israelis and Palestinians to share meals and congregate with each other. This was rare, she explained. Israelis and Palestinians live very divided lives, and even the West Bank is divided into separate zones that segregate the Israelis and Palestinians, with strict rules for who can go where. But Sana saw the need for a place that would help people feel comfortable and safe enough to share a meal with someone who was different, so she built one. She told us that for many Israelis or Palestinians who visited her center, it was the first time they were talking to someone with a different identity from their own.
As social workers, we’re taught to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of human relationships; I saw this perspective radiate through Sana’s center as she worked to make space for those relationships to take root. I saw her center as fertile soil for people to plant seeds of hope and connection that they could then go out and replant in their own homes and communities.
There were too many other examples to count: I met women who worked to address the trauma of losing loved ones in the conflict by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian women to dialogue together. I listened to women using their legal background to promote Arab minority civil rights and create protections for LGBTQ people. I witnessed women fighting to keep the Holy Land free from pollutants and others helping victims of racism seek legal and psychosocial help.
Most of the women we met were Jewish or Muslim — women whose stubborn hope and belief in God’s goodness fueled their work among those who are marginalized in their communities. These women reminded me of the stories of women in the Bible who moved mountains to bring about God’s justice and love on earth: queens, widows, sisters, judges, wives, aunts, sex workers, and mothers who poured God’s good works into their communities.
While I prayed in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which many Christians recognize as the birthplace of Jesus, I thought especially of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary had been told by an angel that the baby in her womb would save the world, but as her pregnancy continued, she must have wondered whether that were really true. Nevertheless, she bore a child, bringing hope and light to the world. Similarly, the women I met have no guarantee that their efforts will bring about an end to the conflict in their lifetimes, yet they continue to fight to create the just and peaceful world they imagine. Their example convinces me to keep doing the good work, even if I won’t see the benefits of it.
At one point on our trip, a tour guide showed us around a Palestinian town nestled amid Roman baths and ancient irrigation systems. He was joined by his two young daughters who, he told us, sometimes liked to imitate him by playing “tour guide” with the neighborhood kids, stopping and talking about different parts of their neighborhood just as they’d seen their father do with tourists like us. As we walked around the town, one of his daughters plucked out a gorgeous pink flower and handed it to him. Our guide never let go of that flower for the rest of our tour, cradling it in his hand like it was a gift from God himself. Even at a young age, the women of Israel/Palestine are showing love and spreading goodness.
I don’t know if I will ever fully process those six days in Israel/Palestine. Yet I know that when I think about hope in action, I will think of the women I met who made space for new things to take root and, with time and much tending, maybe blossom into a just peace befitting of such a Holy Land.