Last year I visited two countries — Israel and Palestine — about which I had discussed so much and yet seen so little. On a four-day trip organised by the Union of Jewish Students we visited different parts of Israel, including the Golan Heights, and made a short sojourn to Palestine, mainly Ramallah.
It was a trip that was primarily organised to discuss the political issues around the Middle East. To many it will have been disgraceful that I even visited Israel. Had I gone on a visit to my country of birth, a country that punishes homosexuality by execution, and hangs any Muslim who becomes an apostate, I doubt anyone would care in the slightest. And yet the idea of visiting Israel is seen as strange and wrong.
I went with people who held a wide variety of political views but I was the only revolutionary socialist. This was valuable — much discussion was had about the history and politics of the region. I quite like debating ideas with people who may disagree with me. Given that I was raised by a Muslim family with pro-Kremlin political views, I wouldn’t get anywhere if I only talked to people who already agree with me. One of the most prevalent problems in the student movement, and outside it, is the inability of many to not only to fathom views other than their own, but even to find out about them.
The President of NUS, for example, seems 100% certain of everything she needs to know about Israel and is 100% certain that boycotting everything Israeli is the way to achieve change on Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. My views expanded and strengthened after I discussed with people from the left, centre and right of Israeli politics.
Our guide for the trip was a British-Israeli lecturer who on everything, from wars with Lebanon to the prohibition on Jews praying at the Temple Mount, gave us every possible view espoused by different political traditions, while making it clear he was on the left. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we saw both tourist areas and traditional sites such as the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City (where I even got the chance to see the Al-Aqsa mosque, generally prohibited to non-Muslims). We also went to the Lebanese and Syrian borders and discussed the history behind those borders. We visited Sderot, a town famous for having many rockets land on it due to its proximity to Gaza (seeing children’s play centres that have been made resistant to rocket attacks was an unnerving thing that I won’t forget in a hurry). We saw the occupation in Palestine as we went through Bir-Zeit and Ramallah and also a project for a new Palestinian town called Rawabi. We met a charity run by both a settler and a former militant Palestinian who now argues for two-states and reconciliation.
It was rather odd but then Israel has a lot of seemingly incongruous things coexisting: Arabs, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular Jews, LGBT people, hard-right nationalists and liberal vegans. Our trip ended at an LGBT centre in Tel Aviv, which appears in the excellent documentary Oriented (about the lives of a group of gay Arabs living in Israel). We discussed the position of LGBT people in Israeli society, something that would probably be ignored and dismissed as pinkwashing by some anti-Zionists.
The saddest thing about the trip was that, illuminating as I found it, I know for a fact it would have benefited some other people in NUS far more. Not so that they would end their opposition to the Israeli state and its occupation — I firmly support that opposition — but so that they could get a better idea of what it was they were opposing. But my view is premised on the fundamental view that Israel is a real society like any other; like British, or German or Tunisian or Peruvian society.
Within the pre-1967 borders, while it may have some laws that should be opposed, Israel is not an illegitimate regime that sustains itself only through brutal military force. To the anti-Israel Arab states, at least in history, Israel is a temporary illegitimate statelet. To some misguided leftists it is a racist endeavour simply and only for being a nation-state of a certain people. Yet they do not regard as racist and evil any other state, let alone the myriad of those that explicitly describe themselves as Arab or Islamic states, despite not being ethnically or religiously homogenous.
Outside the 1967 border, it is of course a different matter. The continuing occupation and the blockade of Gaza are not examples of a democratic and peaceful society but of an injustice that must end immediately, so that the Palestinian people achieve the same right that the Israelis currently enjoy to live in their own state and have a functioning society. The occupation is a crime and the settlements are illegal.
The trip, which I am thankful to UJS for inviting to take part, did not blind me to these facts. Seeing the desolation and poverty on the road from Ramallah to East Jerusalem cannot make anyone less sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. While Israel may be the most democratic country in the Middle East, the West Bank is not Israel and Israel’s control over it (as well as the blockade of Gaza) is anything but democratic. I still believe that the only immediate peaceful and just end to the conflict should be through a free and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and a dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank.