YOU’LL SEE the checkpoints, the wall, a Palestinian protest, and you’ll want to take sides like your favorite agenda-pushing non-profits will urge you to do. If you go with your mind made up, you’ll find people, bitter people, who will tell you exactly what you want to hear. You’ll think you were proven right, and you’ll leave feeling smug.
Wherever you go and for whatever the reason, people will be political and tense in a way that’s palpable, scrutinizing each other constantly. They’ll tell you how the Palestinians have wronged them, how the Israelis have destroyed them.
Listen to them, all of them, and they’ll teach you something about taking sides.
The angry Israeli
You’ll meet him beside the Sea of Galilee, and he’ll be old and frail in a way that makes his hand tremble with each bite of ice cream. His wife will trail behind you in the hotel convenience store, unable to fathom why you’re alone in a guesthouse in Northern Israel. Women didn’t wander off alone when she was your age. She was married with a child when she was your age. She’ll tell you that her husband would love to teach you about Israel.
“He’s very smart,” she’ll say, taking your hand and leading you to their table on the patio. “It’s why I married him.”
He’ll point a shaking finger to the Kinneret, tracing the Jordan Mountains north to the mouth of the Jordan River, and back across the water to the Sapir pumping station. “To understand Israel you must understand the water,” he’ll say. “Everything green that you see in this country is because of our irrigation system. They hate us for a lot of reasons. Land was the first reason, water was the second.”
His wife will tell you that they moved to Tel Aviv from New York in the ’80s. They wanted to retire to the beach.
“All we want is peace,” he’ll say. “We want to live here peacefully, but they won’t let us. They are so angry.” He’ll trace an imaginary Green Line on the table with the back of his spoon, list the victories of 1967.
“They throw rockets from Gaza, they throw stones from the West Bank, they teach their children to hate us.” He’ll tell you the source of the hate is Iran. “We should wipe them off the map before they get us first.”
His hands will be trembling harder now, trembling with something like hatred. And you’ll nod. You’ll nod because he’s 90 and he can barely eat his ice cream and there’s nothing else to do but nod.
The angry Palestinian
He’ll ask you where you’re from as you browse the olivewood keepsakes in his Bethlehem workshop. You’ll tell him you’re American and he’ll let out a long “Ahhhhhh.”
“So you love the Jews?” He’ll stand too close to you with his arms crossed, studying the side of your face.
“I love everyone,” you’ll say, hoping to deter him.
“You love me?” He’ll giggle and rub his belly and tell you that you have beautiful eyes.
You’ll smile at his wall of nativity scenes, but his smile will fade quicker than yours.
“Your country only loves the Jews.”
“Not everyone in my country,” you’ll say.
“Tell Obama we hate him like we hate the Jews.”
You’ll see a Palestinian flag hanging beside a Norwegian one on the wall opposite his shop. You’ll tell shopkeepers you’re from Norway for the rest of the day, but his words will follow you home.
You’ll meet them on the side of the road near Tabgha, two teenage girls, and they’ll teach you how to hitchhike around the Galilee. A white pickup truck will slow for them, two light-eyed teenage boys in tow. They’ll speak Hebrew for several minutes, kicking at the dust and laughing like they know each other. But the girls will shake their heads and the boys will drive on.
“They were funny,” one of them will say, turning from the road with a smile. “And they looked like Jews.”
“They looked like Jews, but they spoke Hebrew like Arabs,” her friend will say, sticking out her finger for the next car. “You probably shouldn’t hitchhike without us. It’s dangerous when you can’t hear their accents.”
The Palestinian hostel worker
He’ll work the front desk at your hostel in Nazareth and he’ll have kind eyes and a ponytail despite his receding hairline. You’ll be barefoot on the painted tile floor, hunting for tea and a quiet place to read. You’ll tell him you want to study the Middle East in Israel and he’ll spend the evening with you, telling you about the Israel he knows.
He’ll tell you how suicide bombers define whole communities of people who want nothing but peace and water. “I hate them but I understand them,” he’ll say. “They watch their children die in the streets of Gaza when Israeli missiles come falling down, they watch their mothers harassed in line at the checkpoints.”
The call to prayer will ring out across the white stone city turning pink in the twilight.
“The shame of feeling helpless changes something inside of them. I don’t support them. They make my life harder and they’re the reason why Jewish families teach their young children to hate me, to fear me. But I understand them,” he’ll say. “Something inside them is broken by this place, and the only power they have left over their lives is to kill.”
He’ll tell you that the media is to blame, that he laughs when he watches politicians on the screen. He speaks Hebrew and Arabic fluently and he’ll tell you how words are twisted to scare people who only speak one language, how interviews are translated to sound more ominous than they are.
“The politicians are in charge of this country,” he’ll say. “The media works for people who never want this fight to end.”
The Jewish mother
You’ll meet a curly-headed girl at the Dead Sea who invites you home to stay. You’ll live in Baka for the weekend in her mother’s house, filled with framed pictures and rugs, and you’ll share leftover Shabbat dinner and talk. You’ll fall in love with a curly-headed boy in a photograph on the wall. Her mother will tell you he was a cousin of your new friend, who died during his IDF service ten years ago.
You’ll drink tea on the balcony that lends views of the wall and Bethlehem beyond it. Her mother will tell you that Palestinian boys threw Molotov cocktails at this balcony during the Second Intifada and screamed and screamed. It was around the same time that the curly-headed boy in a green uniform closed his eyes somewhere far away from home.
You’ll drive into the West Bank with an Israeli journalist for a press tour of the Jewish settlements, where settlers will beg for wider water pipes and better security once they’re in place.
“They think the Palestinians are drilling through the lines and stealing water,” your friend will say. He’ll tell you how water has been diverted from some Palestinian villages, how they depend on government deliveries that are almost always late.
You’ll drive to Ramallah to meet his friend for lunch, a young Palestinian journalist who can only leave the West Bank on a good day, when her press pass is approved by the Israeli government. They’ll practice their Hebrew and Arabic on each other and bicker and laugh.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” she’ll say. “No one ever hears about people like us.”
He’ll tell you how they met in Jerusalem, at a seminar for young journalists organized by an NGO called Search for Common Ground. “When young people meet each other and talk, most of them realize that we’re basically the same,” he’ll say. “We all want the freedom to write what we want, and the ability to move around freely.”
He’ll rub his hands on his thighs as the food begins to arrive. “And eat kebab together,” he’ll say, making a move for the lamb. “We all just want to eat kebab together.”
“Life is supposed to be just like this,” she’ll say, smiling with each new mezze that passes in front of her eyes. “Someday things will be different.”
When you listen
You’ll leave knowing more but feeling certain about less.
You’ll learn how hatred makes the heart frail, how politics matter more than quiet friendships, how a smile can’t seem to make it past a sidewalk in Ramallah.
You’ll learn how taking sides is like kicking a rock in the street. It’s easy and you do it because you can, but there’s no meaning behind the act of it, nothing meaningful that changes because you kicked it.
Months later, you’ll watch Barbara Walters interview Shimon Peres on a shiny morning talk show. He’ll praise the Arab Spring and laud the young protesters leading uprisings against brutal regimes. “I think they’ll win because they’re young,” he’ll say. “The world belongs to them.”
You’ll wonder what he’d say to the Israeli boy and the Palestinian girl in Ramallah, what Netanyahu and Abbas would say if they weren’t politicians for a day, only people.
Would they tell those young writers that the world belongs to them too? [Editors note: This piece was written in response to another recent Change article, Why women can and should travel solo in the West Bank.]