Jordan: A World Wonder

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I finally feel the need to break my blogging silence with a new post about my trip to Jordan with Aaron, Nora, and Marian. Besides short trips to Palestine, last week was my first time properly out of Middle East-lite, as Aaron calls it. Crossing into Jordan was fairly painless, and the cab ride from the Beit She’an border crossing down to Salt made it all worthwhile. Jordan is various shades of tan with a bit of green, comprised entirely of rolling hills, spotted with camels, goats, and sheep. I’m used to the suburbs, so I couldn’t take it in fast enough. As we arrived into town, I became enamored by the people- women in hijab and men with keffiyehs, shepherds, shopkeepers, kids plating in strange places.

Salt was an incredible city with a great panorama and long history. We stayed in a house on the fringe of the city which offered a lot of peace and quiet, but we also had the opportunity to see downtown Salt, which was bustling with activity. We walked through a huge market and were surprised by shopkeepers saying “welcome to Jordan!” instead of goading us into buying their goods.

It’s important for me to mention this off the bat: there’s no question Israelis are some of the warmest people you could wish to meet, but they’re a nut you have to crack. (That’s why they’re called sabras! Prickly on the outside, mushy on the inside.) Jordanians, on the other hand, are warm from the start. They all have easy smiles and want to offer whatever they have- a place to sleep, a ride anywhere, a cup of tea, a meal, a nice conversation, you name it. Case in point: I was invited to two weddings while in Jordan. I had zero unsavory interactions with anyone. Rather, I felt unworthy of the incredible friendliness and hospitality I was receiving. The father of our host family took us on a walk through his neighborhood in Salt where we eventually came to one of his family member’s houses. They were having a family party, where I had the privilege of sitting with the grandmother, the matriarch of the family and the queen of her domain. She didn’t speak a word of English but she was so proud to point out her many children, and their many grandchildren. One particular man had recently returned from Saudi Arabia as a hajj, and he had brought with him zamzam water. This holy water comes from Abraham’s well in Mecca, and the well itself is the holiest place in the world for all Muslims; to drink from it is the utmost achievement one can attain. He poured us generous glasses, and my eyes watered by the significance of the gesture.

Amman is not what I thought it would be, mainly because I was warned so prudently about going, and any fears I had were unfounded. This city is everything I wish Haifa were- it had all the right kinds of American fast food places with none of the wrong ones, along with everything you’d (well, I’d) want a city to have- history, culture, hip bars, gelato, etc. Again, everything from the landscape to the buildings was a shade of tan, which was mesmerizing.  On our first visit to Amman, we visited the citadel built by Romans, back when the city was called Philadelphia. Our hosts took us to a fancy restaurant where we must have had over a dozen courses, when all was counted up. We finished it off with shisha, tea, and melon, and I realized I could definitely get used to this kind of lifestyle.

On our next trip to Amman, we stayed with a friend of Nora’s friend, an incredibly cool dude named Daniel who took great care of us, even though I had become sick and miserable at this point. We were all pretty tired at this point in our trip, but we mustered up the strength to visit a popular restaurant in town, then a bar where the clientele seemed to be Jordan’s young hipsters. We were also graced with the company of one of Marian’s old friends from a program in Amman, who returned once again as a freshly appointed diplomat. He was hilarious.

We arrived in Petra early the next afternoon, rested a bit, and explored the town of Wadi Mousa to scout out a good place to have dinner, which we found. We had planned to visit Petra at night- it’s much less expensive and supposed to be beautiful, as the path to the Treasury is entirely lit with candles. But for the first time in what seemed like forever, it rained. We had planned to go four-wheeling in Wadi Rum the next day, but I didn’t want to come so close just to miss Petra, so Nora and I set out early the next morning. It was more exercise than I got in a month, and entirely worth it. One has to walk a long while before reaching the Treasury, but after turning the corner and finally seeing it, it was breathtaking.

Nora and I made friends with a couple of friendly Bedouin guides who made us tea and told us a bit about their lives. We caught up with one of the guides later, who showed us some of the best views in Petra. He had very little patience for my fear of heights, which I only discovered I had that day. He was jumping onto small peaks of things with ease while I stayed back on all fours hugging large rocks and sweating profusely. To Nora’s credit, she is completely fearless. The guide gave us a good idea of the history of the Nabataeans who had built Petra, and brought an element of modernity to it by showing us the cave he resides in, where in 2013 he essentially lives like a Nabataean.

We negotiated good donkey prices and rode them up a mountain to the monastery. Mine I named (of course) Dominic, and he was a true Italian Christmas donkey as he took it really easy, taking many breaks and getting sidetracked by almost everything. At one point, the stubborn thing stopped and refused to go further, and a crowd began to form, watching my predicament. I assumed they were looking at something else, but when Dominic finally decided we could go, they all applauded and continued on their way. We were supposed to have a guide with us but I think he either didn’t care what we did or we outpaced him, so we lost the guy from the start. The monastery was incredible and Nora and I spent a long time basking in the sight. We impressed ourselves by climbing a couple more nearby peaks, then we headed back to the hotel, exhausted. The next morning, we started our trek back to Haifa, an all-day endeavor that took us back up through Amman, across the Allenby border crossing, through the West Bank and Jerusalem, and finally onto Haifa. We woke up at 6 and arrived in Haifa just before midnight.

I didn’t want people to know off the bat that I’m Jewish. No shame, but I wanted to feel the temperature first and hear real opinions. When people asked where we were coming from, we said Haifa instead of Israel (Israel being awkward to say around likely Palestinian-Jordanians, and Haifa being known as a cool mixed city.) A few times we were asked if we preferred “Israel” or “Palestine,”  but we laughed, shrugged, said “both,” and that diffused the situation. Many (most?) Jordanians have Palestinian roots, so everyone is at least a little political, but everyone was extremely respectful, and when they did find out I’m Jewish, they were excited and wanted to hear my thoughts on things. So I never once felt uncomfortable or out of place (well, only out of place for being an obvious Westerner) I made a pal out of a Turkish-Jordanian who told me I was the first Jew he had ever met. This was when I was really sick, so hopefully he didn’t think all Jews were miserable and sickly, but I think I gave a decent impression. (Again touching on hospitality, he took it upon himself to arrange our transportation for the next day, haggle a good price, then invited us to dinner with his family, which we regrettably couldn’t make.)

My parents had been opposed to me traveling anywhere north of Petra, which would have ruled out the first 75% of my trip. I can only think of about two times in my life when I disobeyed my parents not to be a mischievous brat but because I really felt that I had a more complete view from where I was standing. They were relieved when I called after returning in one piece to Israel, which brought a chuckle. We were dropped off from the border crossing to Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, which was seeing some protest activity for Nakba Day. I had forgotten it was Nakba Day until that morning, but I was pretty excited to see some action. When we went through Damascus Gate the first time, the demonstrations were tame, and we eventually meandered to the Educational Bookshop to read, have a coffee, and pass some time. We were sitting outside for only a few minutes when a giant hullaballoo erupted through our street- Palestinians were demonstrating in masse, but even more astounding was the IDF chasing them down on horseback. One of the horses jumped onto the sidewalk where we were sitting and nearly knocked a woman down and gave us a real scare. I got it all on camera, but I lowered my camera for the worst of the horse incident because I was looking for the door behind me to jump back into. Later, we were wandering down Via Dolorosa to get a bite to eat, when some shouting behind us caused me to turn around and just about dive into the wall- several police in riot gear were speedily marching Palestinian teens to the police station, as cameramen from whichever news sources documented. I most definitely ruined their shots, standing in between the scene and the cameras, going “Hey you guys, what’s goin–” Later, we read that several Palestinians were arrested for throwing rocks, and a few on both sides were injured. We did see someone being loaded onto an ambulance. So I had to laugh when my parents breathed a sigh of relief hearing I was finally back home, when I felt I had left the serenity of the Jordanian desert for the Wild West of East Jerusalem. Of course, the place and the day presented different circumstances than usual, but it was a jolt to my senses nonetheless.

 I’m writing now from the Camel restaurant on the beach in Haifa. Some Israeli mom is yelling “yalla!” at her kid, and there’s labane on my menu. The differences between where I was yesterday and where I am today makes the region interesting, but what makes it more interesting are the similarities. My examples are only a half joke, but there is truly so much value in both cultures which I wonder if both groups truly appreciate. Working at Mitvim, a think tank focusing on Israel’s relationship with other nations in the region, my mind keeps returning to one thought: the Arab world has so much beauty and adventure to offer, it would be a shame for Israel to waste even one more minute in conflict.

Goodbye 2012!

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I have to admit, I’m extremely intimidated writing this particular blog post. In the month since I’ve written last, I’ve experienced plenty, but a broken computer charger, a lack of spare time, then a growing heap of things to write about kept me far away from the blog. Now I will try to catch up, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll try to tackle this beast in some kind of organized form.

Jerusalem trip #1- Masa Security and Diplomacy Shabbaton

Jewish American students studying in Israel, with a few other qualifications, are awarded a Masa grant to apply to their studies. Myself and a few others on my program were awarded the grant, and with it, a lot of opportunities became available to us. The Security and Diplomacy shabbaton was among these great opportunities. Everything was paid for and top-notch. We started out our weekend on a tour around some neighborhoods in Jerusalem and a chance to visit the Security Fence/Separation Wall- to avoid getting entangled in the clash of labels, I’ll refer to is as the Wall from now on and you can understand which wall I’m referring to. Anyways, we were taken to an overlook rarely used which offers a beautiful panorama of both West and East Jerusalem. We heard the call to prayer coming from a mosque in East Jerusalem. This weekend, I should mention, was the first weekend after the Israel-Gaza conflict, and tension was still high. Over the next 24 hours, we were graced with several excellent speakers, one was a Colonel in the IDF’s reserves, another was from the Jerusalem Post, and two others were journalists from Haaretz. I would like to go into more detail about the speakers because they touched on some really interesting points, but for the sake of finally finishing this blog post, I’ll leave that for another time. The most interesting speaker in my opinion was Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab-Israeli journalist for JPost. Several of my friends thought he was too pro-Israeli and doing a disservice to Palestinians, but I found him to be just my brand, in a Thomas Friedman/Fareed Zakaria no-nonsense kind of way. We had a few workshops which were educational but had a pro-Israel bias that even turned me off. Also worth mentioning, Masa fed us like we have never been fed before. For three meals, we had the fanciest dinners in a beautiful reception hall, and the variety and quality of the food rivaled that of my Bat Mitzvah- and my Bat Mitzvah had a caviar bar and vodka luge. Overall, the weekend was very valuable in exposing me to a variety of opinions that exist in Israeli society, and it was a good counterbalance to the trips I’ve been going on with my Cleavages and Conflict class, which fell gratuitously to the other side of the political spectrum.

Jerusalem Trip #2- Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This trip was organized by a former ambassador who is now attached to our program. He did a splendid job organizing speakers from the MFA. This was an opportunity for all of us to dress up and feel like diplomats ourselves while hobnobbing with some of the Israeli government’s most interesting people. Again, I could go on forever about what the speakers had to say, but I will touch on it more later, hopefully. Most of our lecturers were exceptional, but one was a bit of a wildcard. This particular diplomat gave us a presentation about the Palestinians’ effort to delegitimize Israel, but in the process, many of his remarks delegitimized the Palestinians. Perhaps he thought he had a different kind of audience, but several of my classmates challenged him and really made him sweat. But there’s no harm in making someone from the MFA answer a couple tough questions.

Tel Aviv Trip- The Israeli-Palestinian Negotiation Congress that never happened

We set out to Tel Aviv to watch a mock negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians played out live for an audience. Unfortunately, the event was canceled as the Palestinian negotiators didn’t show up. It happened to be the day of the Palestinian victory in their UN non-member state bid. The idea was that on the day that the Palestinians achieved a major goal in their journey towards statehood, it would not be right for the negotiators to enter into Israel proper, and if they did, they would be shamed at home by BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions- not really a fun group to be on the bad side of). We didn’t let the change of plans spoil our weekend. Aaron, Stuart, and I spent the first night trying and failing at Tel Aviv nightlife, then soothed our headaches the next morning with an authentic Georgian brunch. For dinner, Aaron and I took a little trip to Jaffa and enjoyed my old favorite, Dr. Shakshuka. We made it back to the city in time to see the rest of our friends who had arrived at the hostel. We accompanied them on a walk around the city, then I went to sleep nice and early. In the morning, we went on a tour of the Bauhaus architecture on Rothschild Street. We learned a bit about the earliest years of the city, but to be fair- Bauhaus as a style is not that pretty or interesting; the buildings are bland, white geometric cubes with an emphasis on functionality over style. Not every tour can be the Gaudi tour in Barcelona- now there’s a real crazy treat for the eyes. We had another brunch, this time, it was really New York style with fancy looking Tel Aviv-ians dressed to the nines and sipping mimosas. Afterwards, because the weather was quite mild, we kicked around on the beach and watched the sunset while laying in the sand together. We made it back to Haifa later that night, completely exhausted.

Jerusalem Trip #3- Breaking the Silence in South Hebron Hills

I am very appreciative to be here with Nora, who has exposed me to so many interesting places, acted as our tour guide, and has had unlimited patience answering all my questions. On this particular trip, Nora arranged for us to come on a tour of South Hebron Hills with a group of veteran IDF soldiers called Breaking the Silence. This was probably the most valuable, eye-opening trip I’ve taken this year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, South Hebron Hills is a part of the West Bank, more specifically, Area C, which means it is under complete Israeli control, in both the municipality and security sectors. This is territory occupied under the Israeli military, and you can easily see that by taking a peak around, and knowing what you’re looking at. Imagine my surprise when our guide pointed out the city of Arad nearby. I spent two summers in Arad and I never knew what the hills were to the north. I lived literally minutes’ drive from the occupation and I was none the wiser. We visited a settlement, some illegal outposts, then a couple Palestinian neighborhoods. Susiya, one of these neighborhoods, had been moved a few times when settlers took over their land. It’s once again under demolition orders. The stories injustice are literally endless (literally in the literal sense!)- settlers can place barrels with trees growing in them on Palestinian land then claim it as their own. Solar panels which were donated by a German organization and provide power to Palestinians are under demolition orders. There are nomadic Palestinians who migrate according to the harvest seasons, and Israeli municipality can take over the land that was left behind for the season and claim they abandoned it. Settlers can chop down Palestinian trees, and IDF soldiers cannot get involved- the best they can do is call the police, who will take at least a half hour to make the trip, and by then, the trees are chopped. Municipality can destroy Palestinian wells, as we saw in a couple instances. The problems go on and on and on. There is a systemic problem in Israel whereby soldiers in the IDF are required to protect settlers, although settlers are often provoking problems. The problem settlers are a minority, but a loud one.

Jerusalem Trip #4- East Jerusalem with the Cleavages and Conflict class

I spent this day with a nasty case of food poisoning, and my friends were so sweet to help me feel more comfortable throughout the day. We went to the Jerusalem YMCA first, and were spoken to by Professor Yitzhak Reiter and the director, Forsan Hussein. I was really excited to see Hussein, as I have read about his accomplishments and to me, he a man of exceptional virtue. I absorbed what I could from both of them through the blinding pain of continual stomach cramps. We had a bite to eat at the mall afterwards and I was able to slip in to the Old City very, very briefly if for no other reason than to dissuade the guilt I’ve been feeling about not visiting at all this year. Afterwards, we were taken by bus to a little conference center in East Jerusalem. We heard two Palestinian activists speak. One, in my opinion, was pretty offensive. Among other things, he mentioned that support of Israeli policy means supporting the murder of children, and the Kotel tunnels are a secret ploy to destroy the infrastructure of the Dome of the Rock, which when it falls will be replaced by the Third Temple. There were many more comments like these that were pretty nonsensical and ruined the rest of the presentation for me. Afterwards, I found out I was not alone, many people were rubbed the wrong way by the man’s assertions. I came back to Haifa and spent the rest of the night and the following day confined to my sickbed.

Jerusalem Trip #5- Christmas in Bethlehem/ East Jerusalem

Spending Christmas in Bethlehem has been on my list of life goals for as long as I can remember. I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by while I was so close. Luckily, several of my friends were also eager to celebrate in that little town where Jesus was born. The trip there was was a disaster, as we had trouble finding our way to the West Bank, but after finally arriving, a little worse for wear, we began to relax and take in the most marvelous views. Manger Square was packed with Palestinians and tourists; I could have stuck out my elbows and let the crowds carry me around. There were Christmas lights everywhere, a giant Christmas tree, and the sounds of Christmas carols in English and Arabic. Unbelievably, the celebration, fanfare, and lights felt like Christmas in America, if it weren’t for the hordes of Palestinians all around me. At one point early in the night, I was against a fence waiting for friends, when suddenly there was chaos all around me. Everyone pushed against the fence with their cameras waving in the air, hollering in Arabic. The Palestinian security (sweet uniforms, by the way) made a human wall to push people back. Finally, I asked a group standing nearby what the hullabaloo was about. “The president, the president!” “The president of where?” “Here! It’s Abu Mazen!” Here- that’s when I remembered I was in the West Bank, and I had the opportunity to see Mahmoud Abbas’ motorcade only feet in front of me. Later in the night, Kate, Jess and I got briefly separated from the rest of our group when the Palestinian security formed another impromptu human wall directly in front of us. Again, I asked what was happening to the guards who were eager to speak English and share a friendly laugh with us tourists. “It’s our Prime Minister!” Holy hell- another motorcade passed in front of me, this time with Salam Fayyad in tow. We ate at a restaurant in Manger Square overrun with tourists, but we were so hungry that it hardly mattered. We relaxed over some Taybeh beers, the local brew and a new favorite of our group, and I enjoyed some shawarma. After dinner, Nora took us around a few of her favorite places near her old apartment, and we met some of her friends I had heard many nice things about. We made our way back to East Jerusalem to the hostel we were staying at- a guest house at a Lutheran hospital. Even in the dark, we could tell it was surrounded by beauty- all magnificent stonework and foliage. In the morning, a few of us went to a Lutheran church service in Jerusalem. I don’t really know the Christmas carols or the right things to say or do in church, but still, being in that congregation on Christmas morning was one of the most warm and cozy feelings I’ve ever felt. I’m really grateful to my Lutheran friends for bringing this token Jew along, because I really enjoyed myself. But it was all topped by the incredible brunch we had afterwards. The brunch was at the Lutheran’s “Stone House,” an old German administrative building from back in the days of the Mandate. If ever there was a house meant for Christmas parties, it was this one. The house was magnificent- all exposed stone with arches and rotundas, it was warm, everything smelled like apple cider, everything was decked in boughs of holly, and all the guests were so friendly and welcoming. I was truly sad to go, and I will never forget the kindness of the Lutherans I met.

There’s more to say. There’s always more! But my fingers are on fire and it will have to wait until the next time. Goodbye to 2012, and hello to a new year filled with lots of promise! Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and happy New Year to everyone!!

A Trip Back to 2009

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I used to keep a journal where I would consider all sorts of things, from Israeli society to my thoughts on patriotism, from war to peace. This is what was on my mind three years ago, and it elicited a chuckle today. Isn’t it funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same?

December 24, 2009- Israel has bigger fish to fry than we do.

All my personal feelings I have towards America are also true for Israel. The first thing I have to say is that I love Israel with all my heart. When I finally got a chance to travel to Israel in late 2005, I got bitten by that infamous Israel bug, and I’ve since went back every year. I started as a tourist- I hit all the big sites in the comfort of a big bus filled with other wide-eyed kids like myself. I had a guard, a medic, a tourguide: a multi-layered buffer zone between myself and the real deal. Several trips later, I’ve completely immersed myself. No longer am I a foreign tourist in a strange land. I’ve learned Hebrew (not enough to sound like I fit in completely, but enough to get by). I have roots there: I have a town where I belong, places I have called home, people I call family. I have sabra friends who have unwittingly served as test subjects for all my Israeli studies.

For two summers, I held a job working at a day camp in the quiet desert town of Arad. Working with kids brings us all to a common denominator.  Predictably, the first day of camp always sees us sitting in a circle. I have to laugh- no matter what I’ve accomplished, or where I have been in life, when it’s my turn in the circle, I say “Hi! I’m Lauren and my favorite color is yellow.” Or something like that. Of course, it was another denominator altogether when I barely spoke Hebrew and my campers barely spoke English. Still, we made do. Out of necessity, we met somewhere in the middle. I learned enough to hold rudimentary conversations with the kids, and they learned enough to ask to go to the bathroom and tease me so I could understand. They taught me many lessons in consuming Israeli society, which I will come back to another time.

This past summer, after camp ended, I did a youthful “On the Road” stint- I rented a car with a couple friends with no plan, little money, and barely enough clean underwear, and we set out to see everything we could possibly see and bask in the geographic splendor of Northern Israel. We took every opportunity to talk to a diverse local crowd- probing the Israeli spirit with our curious questions about war, daily life, and their prospects for the future. This offered me my next insights into Israel. Those I’d like to come back to as well- but first I want to discuss the big, obvious difference between Israelis and Americans that it took me until last summer to figure out.

One balmy night in Arad, a conversation with my friend Tal led me to draw a major conclusion. He had questions to ask me, for a change. He wanted to know why, on all the American shows, everything is so complicated and dramatic? Shows like The Hills come to mind, shows we’re ashamed of but can secretly identify with. In Israel, things like relationships never seem so complex. A word often heard in Hebrew conversation was “pashut” – simple. Things like relationships were just much more simple in Israel. I had no good answer for Tal, but I think I do now. Americans have the luxury of dramatizing those things that have to take backseat in Israel because Israelis are dealing with more upfront issues. (Upfront issues like security and mandatory army service, things that effect Israeli teens and not American teens.) Tal’s in the army now, and I’m still giving undue gravitas to my relationship problems. I can sympathize with Tal but I cannot empathize. This is where I see the biggest disparity between our societies, and I can break it down like so-

Americans make a big deal out of stupid things because they have that convenience. How else could a guy like Tiger Woods be made into such a gigantic figure because of his family problems? Only after times that American security is challenged, such as in the wake of September 11th, do we see a genuine banding together, American patriotism, and a temporary disregard for the paltry things in favor of what we feel best serves our country and our community.

Israelis are constantly dealing with wars, attacks, incursions, or intifadas. They are born to serve their nation with Israeli pride. My campers used to bring toy guns to camp; I would confiscate them immediately in accordance with the American attitude that there was something dangerously wrong with a child who played with toy guns!  My Israeli co-counselors would gently explain to me that this is just what they do here. In eight years, they will be training with real guns, and it helps for them to get some practice as kids, even if it just seems like play at the moment. Even playtime is ruled by preparation for the IDF.

I would spin great tales of college debauchery to my Israeli friends, who of course had their own tales to tell. But they couldn’t relate to the college ethos, besides what they had seen on the screen. They had stories, inside jokes, and slang concerning the army that I couldn’t fully appreciate. The bottom line- as similar as I felt to my Israeli chaverim, this was an age in which our paths started to diverge. Where they converge again, I have no idea; time will tell.

I wondered where the path between my Israeli friends and I would converge again. Last week I would have said they converge right here at the university, where we study together, live together, drink arak and smoke shisha together.

But today, in light of recent world events, I think our paths are yet to really converge. Maybe they never will. Although my Israeli friends and I coexist, when the call comes in from the IDF and they are called up for service, they become patriots of their state and I remain an American tourist.

There is a world of war that I am very fortunate to not understand, because I was born an American and while I’m in Israel, I always have the option of buying a plane ticket, going home, and returning to my normal humdrum life.

Nineteen year old Lauren felt like an authentic Israeli, twenty-two year old Lauren feels like the more time spent in Israel, the more foreign the country feels. I am hesitant about making sweeping statements about a nation and a conflict which is not my own. Now that I have a blog that is read by more than just my parents, I have the social responsibility of getting the story right- and to be completely frank, the more I navigate these waters of Israeli society, the more lost at sea I feel. So I kindly ask anyone who is reading to please share your commentary, opinions, questions, or general musings, so we can figure it all out together.

I will continue to share my story as I see it if you’ll keep reading it!

 

Fallout

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Last night, many of us who had been away for the weekend finally reunited in the dorms. Some of the girls spent the weekend in Jerusalem and had a similar missile experience as we had in Tel Aviv. Others had a weekend of horror in the south of the country. When we finally saw each other, so many long, meaningful hugs were exchanged. We had all realized that in the course of getting to know each other in the last months, we never hugged one another. After this weekend that rattled everyone to the core, we desperately needed that human connection. Political affiliations and religious beliefs aside, we hugged it all out and felt some catharsis in our shared experience; we were closer than ever.

But we’re in limbo. Although many of us are finally feeling some relief after a weekend of anxiety, we know there could be a war ahead of us. We want to catch our breath, but we feel it’s too soon to completely relax. I have friends all over the country who are being called up for reserve duty- not knowing what the future holds, our attempts to comfort each other are just glib words. As conflict resolution students, we talk nonstop about the particulars of the Israel/Hamas crisis; we disagree over the correct course of action, we question and challenge and nitpick to no end. But at the end of the day, we realize we all share the same desire for a quick, peaceful end to this crisis.

Last week there was a demonstration on campus organized by various Arab groups at the university. The media misrepresented it as a moment for silence to mourn the death of Jabari, but here at the university, we know it was actually a moment of silence in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza. (I wondered before I arrived if I would be fortunate enough to see instances when being in Israel allowed me to see the truth in something the media got wrong- this was a great example.) Yesterday, I attended the Israeli demonstration which was a show of support for Israel and the soldiers who are serving now. Two extremely right wing members of Knesset sneaked onto campus during the Israeli demonstration and caused some chaos. The Arabs wanted them gone, and the Jews wanted them gone as well. No police had to be called in, because no one was really in conflict.

I had no idea when I came here how liberal the campus was. I also had no idea the extent to which it was a mixed campus of Jews and Arabs, but I am so glad for both. Everyone has been extremely respectful of one another. I see keffiyehs everywhere, and I see Israeli flags everywhere, but there is certainly a sense that we are all in this together, praying for the safety of everybody‘s families, in Gaza and in Israel.

Today I stopped by an area of one academic building that had been roped off to allow the Israeli version of the Red Cross to collect blood from students, I assume in case they’re needed by the army in the coming days and weeks. I saw every kind of student waiting in line to donate. Unfortunately I was turned down, but I was happy to see the turnout that took the time to do a great thing.

On a day like today, I am so proud to be a student at the University of Haifa, and I hope that no matter what happens in the coming days, all the students continue to act in a dignified and loving matter towards one another.

The Fighting Continues

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In the past 48 hours, everyone’s life in the Middle East has been absolutely turned upside down. When I learned that there was a surge in rockets being fired into Israel, I unfortunately thought that this was the standard ebb and flow of life here. It would eventually quiet down, like all flare ups here do.

On Wednesday night in our Research Methods class, we all sat behind our computers and one by one read the news that the Israeli military had killed Hamas’ military chief, Ahmed Jabari. As the news trickled around the classroom, there was an undeniable feeling of dread in the air, as we all felt that the worst of a Gazan-Israeli crisis was ahead of us. An emergency meeting was scheduled to brief the international students of the protocol for evacuation from campus, if need be. It was stressed over and over that this was an extreme hypothetical, and this situation would most likely end quickly, as flare ups like these are sadly common in the powder keg that is the Middle East.

I had planned a weekend in the south of Israel (Arad) with Aaron, but we were advised that Hamas would be targeting the South, and we needed to postpone our trip. We obliged, but feeling the itch to get out of Haifa, we planned a last minute trip to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is, of course, the bubble of Israel- an impenetrable haven where Israeli life goes on despite the turmoil outside the bubble. On Thursday night, we packed up and headed to the train station. While waiting for the train, I received a text from a friend saying there was an attack on Tel Aviv, and we ought to turn back. We discovered that the news was true, but as the train pulled in to the station, it was too late to turn back. The mood on the train was evidence that everyone had heard of the missile attack. You could hear a pin drop and almost feel the anxiety as it exuded from every Israeli.

Apparently, as we waited for the train in Haifa, the people of Tel Aviv were having a serious scare. For the first time since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and the people had to scramble into bomb shelters for the first time in ages. The bubble was popped. Many I talked to reported hearing the boom of the missile as it made landfall. No one was killed, and the Israelis were back to everyday life shortly after.

Aaron and I were feeling the stress of being in Tel Aviv after an attack. The streets were unbelievably quiet and back in America, we knew our families were worrying for our safety. We cheered ourselves up with a magnificent Italian dinner at Piazza Caffe on Dizengoff Street with Aaron’s former professor and her friend, as well as the owner of the restaurant. We stuffed ourselves with course after course of delicious Italian food- focaccia, pasta, pizza, carpaccio, tiramisu, things covered generously in truffle. The Israelis comforted us by showing us that inside the restaurant at least, life was going on, and ours should too. A lot of tension dissipated as sangria went down the shaft.

Today, Aaron and I decided to walk to old Jaffa and stop for a brunch along the way. We were sitting at an outdoor restaurant on the beach, enjoying the food and great views. Behind us were the major hotels of Tel Aviv. At about 1:30, we were simultaneously eating one meal and planning our next meal, as we typically do. Suddenly we heard what sounded like an ambulance behind us. Before even having a chance to identify the source of the sound, the entire restaurant was on its feet and moving fast. Aaron grabbed me and dragged me behind him as I realized these were the air raid sirens and we had less than 90 seconds to find shelter. The man who took my order at the restaurant took control by pointing out the nearest bomb shelters, then we sprinted after a couple Israeli women who led us into a hotel’s parking garage. We caught our breath inside and waited for the impact. The next few seconds were some of the most bizarrely emotional moments I’ve ever experienced- we were so nervous that we actually laughed, as we knew a missile was about to fall and we realized we had absolutely no control as to where it would fall. In the water? On our heads? Our moment of nervous laughter was cut short by a huge boom and a rumble that made me grab Aaron so hard he probably still has the nail marks to prove it. Across from the parking garage’s doorway we were standing in was a window that overlooked the beach. Only about 100 meters away and directly in front of us, we saw the splash that followed the Fajr-5 missile as it landed in the water, close to the beach- close to our restaurant. After a few minutes, Aaron ventured back outside and I followed after. The man who took my order and pointed me to safety insisted I finish the cappuccino I left behind and relax. ISREALITY: only minutes after a missile attack, we’re back to normal life, albeit, trembling uncontrollably.

At this point, it became clear that we would have to get out of the city and stop hedging our bets in Tel Aviv. We packed quickly and caught the next train to Haifa. The nightmare still didn’t end- in our taxi from the train station to campus, we heard that same scary air raid siren coming across the radio. We tried to ask our driver in Hebrew what was happening, and he made a couple calls to other drivers, then told us “Yerushalayim!” We came back to our apartments and jumped on our computers to discover Jerusalem was under attack too.

We are nervous that Hezbollah involvement in this conflict will mean an attack on our beloved city of Haifa, but we have faith in our university to keep us safe and evacuate us quickly from the city should there be an attack. The buzz going around campus is that if Hezbollah should attack, it will probably be within the next couple days. I had my friend Elias try to seal the part of my bomb shelter that goes over the window, but I am missing a key that I need. Others claim they’re going to be sleeping under their desks in case glass from the windows should break. As international students, I think we more readily buy into the sensationalist fear that most Israelis are too keen to believe, but seeing Israelis worried on a day like today makes me realize the severity of the situation here.

I will share more as soon as I can. Thank you to everyone who wrote to me with messages of concern and love! I’ll let you know when you ought to worry about me, but I promise it’s not yet! Until then, let’s pray and hope for the safety of the civilians in Gaza and Israel affected by the past few days of attacks and my friends being called up to the IDF.

The Druze are no snooze: A day in Isfiya

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I was looking forward to today’s trip to the Negev, but upon our departure, we learned that the Negev trip was canceled due to a recent surge in rocket attacks out of Gaza. Instead, our professor announced that we would go to Isfiya, the Druze village only a few minutes outside campus. So much for our first big trip together deep into the heart of Israel!

This was my first time in Isfiya, and it felt like another world. It offered a beautiful panorama of houses on the hillside and the sea in the distance. I had the opportunity to speak for a bit with Filomena, our program’s lone Italian from Trieste. She paid me the nicest compliment after I spoke a couple sentences to her in Italian- she asked how old I was when I moved to the US from Italy. Anyone who knows me understands that there is literally nothing anyone could say that would flatter me more! After blushing for a while, we were herded into a conference room in a building somewhere where we were addressed by the mayor of Isfiya, then by a friend of the professor who taught us about Druze culture.

The Druze represent a small but interesting minority living in Israel, mostly residing in the hills of Mount Carmel. They are a rather close-knit community that practices a monotheistic religion that one cannot convert into or out of. According to our lecturer, they can be considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, although they use many components of the three Abrahamic faiths. Only the most religious Druze know what they call the “secrets” of the religion. The most interesting facet of their religion in my opinion is the belief in reincarnation. Known for their generous hospitality, the Druze are also incredible cooks- this point is inarguable.

Although no religious group lives without conflict in Israeli society- and the Druze are no exception- they are generally well-regarded in Israel because they serve in the military. The Druze are represented in many parties in the Knesset, and often attain high ranking positions in the military and government. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that this Druze/Israeli lovefest we see depicted in the media is mostly propaganda and does not reflect the majority of Druze opinion.

On a side note, I was fortunate enough to have made a Druze friend named Aehab who showed me around his village, Dalia, last week. He took me for possibly the best shawarma I’ve ever had, then to the bakery for as many Druze/Arab treats as I could fit in a box. (The kenafeh was the winner!) He taught me a lot about Druze culture; for example, the Druze speak Arabic to each other, but Aehab told me that he used Hebrew so much during his army service that now he speaks with a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew and feels 100% proficient at neither! We avoided this problem altogether by speaking in English (not that I had much of a choice!). Our lecturer today explained to us that when Druze men join the army, they become indoctrinated into mainstream Israeli society. They use only Hebrew instead of Arabic, and often suffer a bit of an identity crisis as a result. So they come back to their villages a little less Druze, and it is up to the women of the society to maintain the culture and speak Arabic. Equality between genders is important to the Druze, perhaps because women are needed as keepers of the faith! By the way, they are all literate.

After our talk today, Aaron and I decided to stay in town and find out if the Druze were really the best cooks in Israel. We were not disappointed! We had an amazing lunch with these balls of doughy, delicious bread baked with cheese and olives in the center, then a gigantic pita topped with tender slow-cooked chicken, potatoes, and tons of delicious spices. It was probably the best, most flavorful meal I’ve had in Israel so far, and I took some leftovers home so I can relive it all again! Aaron and I walked around town a bit, but it began to rain so we sought cover on a bus heading back to the university.

It’s a shame about our lost Negev trip, but overall, the day was a great success!

Thoughts about Israeli identities…

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I have a confession to make. When I came to Israel a few weeks ago, I was still very confused about how to use the distinctions “Arab” and “Jew.” When I arrived, I made a Jewish friend with Iraqi heritage, and I referred to him without thinking as an Arab Jew. He was very offended. If his family was both Jewish and Iraqi, did I say something incorrect? Something was going right over my head here.

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to two of Amanda’s friends- MD and Ihab, both Arab Israelis, and they helped to clear up the confusion I’ve been having. I owe them a lot of gratitude for their patience in explaining these things to me!

In America, the word Jew refers to a religious identity. The word Jew in Israel does not apply only to religion- it is an ethnicity, a race, a lifestyle, an all-encompassing term. There are many different kinds of Jews, but for our purposes it is important to distinguish between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews. Ashkenazim come from Eastern Europe (my family would be considered Ashkenazi) and Mizrahim come from the Middle East and North Africa. Their distinct cultures were a product of the nations they lived in. Mizrahi Jews can be from Arabic lands, eat Arabic food, and celebrate Arabic culture in private, but don’t call a Mizrahi an Arab. When the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim immigrated to Israel and met each other, the Ashkenazim brought with them some Orientalist phobia and their interactions made the Mizrahim ashamed of their Arabic backgrounds. Upon arrival, Mizrahim were held in temporary camps called ma’abarot; here they underwent the difficult transition of becoming Israelis, learning the language, and assimilating into society. They had to mask their unique cultural identities in favor of a uniformly Israeli identity.

This obviously comes as no big surprise but I have noticed that a lot of Israeli Jews here- both Ashkenazim and Mizrahim-  are indoctrinated with an “us versus them” or Jew versus Arab mentality. I was telling Ihab about the big  American flag I have hanging in my bedroom as a symbol of my national pride and love of my homeland. He told me he was born and raised right here in Haifa but never felt that same sense of national pride because he always felt a bit like an outsider in his own country. I don’t blame him- I have been here for three weeks and I have already heard my share of racist remarks directed towards Arabs. To me, not feeling at home in one’s own country is the most heartbreaking idea, and I know it happens more often than I care to imagine…

Next blog will be on a much happier note, as tomorrow I travel to the Negev! Home sweet home…