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Finding Heartbreak and Hope in the Holy Land

Israel is a small country, and on my recent trip with the American Israel Education Foundation, it felt like I sat in every one of its meeting rooms. Each year, AIEF brings a small delegation of progressive American rabbis to Israel, not for mud baths or a trek up Masada, but for a series of discussions about the future of Israel and the region with leading experts in their fields.

Israel is a place where both heartbreak and hope feel inevitable. When we walked into our first meeting of the trip with Nitzan Nuriel, the Brigadier General and former Head of Israeli Counter-Terrorism, no one knew that the man in the front of the room in an untucked polo, jeans, and sandals taping a map of the Middle East to the wall was one of Israel’s leading security experts. Israelis are not famous for their formality. General Nuriel explained how you cannot understand Israel without understanding the entire Middle East. Take Syria, for example, where he detailed how an array of religious and geopolitical conflicts have plunged the country into a protracted civil war. There is the US against Russia, religious against secular militias, Turkey against the Kurds, a proxy war between Israel and Iran, a conflict between Sunni groups, and most frightening- a fermenting religious conflagration between Sunnis and the Shiite expansionism of Iran. The larger picture of the Middle East only comes into focus after you zoom out.

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Zooming out -- this was the focus of another speaker, author, and former AP reporter Matti Friedman, in his conversation about Israel’s coverage in the media. In an age of soundbites and tweets, he spoke about how constrained today’s media channels have become and how difficult it is to explain an increasingly complicated region with such limited space. Those who understand WWII, for example, would laugh if someone referred to the conflict as “the American/Italian War of 1944.” Even though America and Italy fought against each other, the conflict only makes sense once a world much larger and more complex comes into view.

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Like the “American/Italian War of 1944,” the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians makes little sense until you zoom out and see the other forces at play. Historically, nearly all of Israel’s wars have been against non-Palestinian adversaries. But the world has zeroed in on Israel’s conflict with its Palestinian neighbors. Friedman spoke about his time as one of forty Associated Press reporters living in and covering Israel. Forty reporters. By comparison, the AP had more reporters covering Israel than India, China, or all of sub-Saharan Africa. Given the coverage, the outside world could rightly assume that this small country on the Mediterranean must be a war zone.

Then Friedman gave us another number -- six. If you took Jerusalem, a city of roughly 860,000 residents, and counted the number of homicides this past year, including victims of terrorism, there were six fatalities. As a reporter, you would be writing on one of the safest cities in the world. In contrast, take a comparably sized American city like Indianapolis, where there were 150 homicides in the same year, or Jacksonville, Florida, where there were 133, or our own city of Washington, DC, with 159, or Baltimore’s staggering 309. The bloodshed is in our backyard, or in China, or South Sudan, but the press is not. The press covers Israel, not as much as a news story, but as a morality trope of good versus evil. Regardless of who is on what side, morality stories pack a punch. Like comic books, these are the stories that sell. These are the stories that have you screaming at your relatives around a Thanksgiving table. And conveniently, these short, uncomplicated articles are the stories that can fit in a reporter’s allocation of 600 words or less.

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Beneath the chessboard of global politics, however, is a human story. In another conference room, this time in Ramallah, we met with a leading Palestinian Authority negotiator who described the complexities of diplomacy in the Middle East, and in graphic detail, the brutality of Hamas in Gaza and Iranian interference through Islamic Jihad. We met with an all-female panel of religious leaders, ranging from an ultra-Orthodox woman and candidate in Israel’s left-wing Labor party to a Reform rabbi leading the charge for religious pluralism. We heard about the progress and setbacks of Israel’s LGBTQ community from the first trans man to become an officer in the Israeli military. And we heard from Chen, a mother and resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the closest kibbutzim to the Gaza border. She described the terror of 1,800 rockets striking the area from Gaza this past year and how it feels to live in fear. Residents of Kfar Aza know, by the sound of the projectile whizzing at them, whether a mortar or Qassam rocket is about to strike. When the preschoolers of the kibbutz hear the siren warning them that they have nine seconds to get to a bomb shelter, they instinctually pick up their arms so an adult can rush them to safety. What a heartbreaking way to live.

Standing outside Chen’s modest home, with a playground on the right and a bomb shelter on the left, Chen showed us the shells of exploded mortars, incendiary balloons, and rockets that had struck her kibbutz. She had been collecting them over the past few months. But standing behind them, she told us that Gaza was the closest neighbor of her isolated kibbutz. “My prayer,” she said, “is that somewhere on the other side of the security fence is a mother like me who just wants a normal life for her children.”

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Reflecting on this array of hopeful and heartbreaking conversations, I kept going back to that first conversation with General Nuriel. The conversation ended with a dire prediction of a coming conflict with Hezbollah, now in possession of over 150,000 missiles. A rabbi in my group asked how Nuriel, as a parent, can sleep at night. Nuriel took a moment and smiled. He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “You know, you cannot raise a family in Israel unless you are an optimist.”

It had been over a decade since I last visited Israel, but for the many challenges it faces, the optimism is unrelenting. Israel is a country that longs for peace. Israel is a country that strives for acceptance. Israel is a country where pessimism and boundless hope are part of daily life. Even if you are not religious, Israel is a place where you pray, with anxiety and expectation, for the peace we know, one day, will come.