Building Bridges for Peace: Jordyn Whitman ’12 talks about her summer experiences.
Jordyn Whitman (’12) talks about her summer experiences.
The feeling of not knowing. Not knowing the answer to a question in class. Not knowing if you have to take a right or a left at the next intersection. Not knowing what to expect in the day to come. Thinking you know so much about being Jewish, about Israel, about the conflict, only to realize you know nothing. That’s what this summer was for me. A summer of not knowing or thinking I knew only to find out I was clueless.
I participated in two programs this summer. I first spent two weeks touring Israel with 97 other Jewish teens from my community. When I returned from Israel, I spent three weeks in Colorado participating in a program called Building Bridges for Peace. This program was made up of very diverse teens from all over America, Israel and Palestine. We even had two Native Americans from a reservation in South Dakota. We spent 3 weeks learning about each other and ourselves as we tried our best to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It started July 6th, it was seven in the morning, I was tired and grumpy after a full day of travel. I walked off the plane in my half awake state, not knowing. “shalom, brohim ha’shavim. Welcome home.” Someone said in a foreign accent. What? Welcome home? I thought to myself, confused. No I’m fifty five hundred miles from there. I didn’t yet know. A week later I stood at the holiest site of all of Judaism, the Western Wall. It was Shabbat evening. Looking up at the wall I felt awestruck. Moved to tears, I could feel thousands of years of history and the millions of Jews who stood where I was standing now. That was when I knew. Welcome home, I thought to myself again. Because this time I really was home. Israel was my home; with its many peoples and religions here was where I belonged.
Three weeks later I was on my way on a new journey. Building Bridges for Peace it was called, our goal, the understanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Welcome back to not knowing, I thought to myself. This time I expected not knowing. But even so there were things I had not even realized I didn’t know. And many times what I did know was twisted and challenged until I couldn’t even recognize my original thoughts.
I’ll share with you three moments. Moment one, we had just made and presented our countries’ historicial timelines, one American, one Israeli, one Palestinian, one Arab-Israeli. No one felt any strong emotions toward the American one, it was what is was and no one disagreed. The other three were something different. Each group argued with the next and each person was personally offended when another group neglected to mention the seven years of bombing their family endured before the Gaza War or that after Al-Nakba (or in English the disaster) but more commonly known to Americans as the Israeli Independence War, some families were left homeless and with nowhere to go. And most importantly as we all were arguing, we were very diligently building up a wall of intolerance and fear around each of our groups. Afterward I took a walk with 2 friends, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Again, I didn’t know, I didn’t know how to listen. None of us did. Palestinian words went in one ear and out the other as my Jewish American words only crashed into the wall that was between us. No matter how loud we shouted neither of our words would pass through the wall. This time I did know something, fear. Fear of people who hated me because I was Jewish. Fear of listening, because what if, when I did, I would change my mind. Fear that me and this boy who I was shouting at weren’t really that different. I didn’t know that these fears were useless and that these things were all true anyway. I didn’t know that in a few short days from now I would be happy they were true. I didn’t know that at that same moment he was feeling those same fears.
Another moment. This time we had benches, lined up a hill one after another frombottom to top. I’ll tell you how it ends. The Americans were on top. Next below us, the Jews in Israel. Then came the Arab-Israelis, non Jews but still citizens of Israel. And finally, only four or five benches from the bottom, the Palestinians. I was looking down upon all of my friends. This was not what the picture should have looked like. All I could feel was distress and guilt. I guess I should explain why we were lined up like this. We were asked questions. Simple questions, “Do you have a passport from your country?” “Can you travel to any country you want” “Do you worry your house will be taken away at any moment?” “Can you go to the doctors whenever you need?” “Are you a majority in your community?” there were twenty. Every question you answered positively you went up a bench. I and all but 3 Americans were all on bench 19. There were people on bench 4. What did I not know then? I was the luckiest person in the world. Let me repeat that I am the luckiest person in the world. And again, we. As. Americans. Are. The . luckiest. People. In. the. World. Standing there I felt something in me change; suddenly I realized how little I had known before that moment, how little I knew then. I had come with such a strong sense of pride for Israel and its army. But all of the sudden, I felt like I had been deceived. I heard stories of Palestinians being beaten up at check points, of people my age who thought that an Israeli soldier’s purpose was to humiliate him, and worst of all a friend of mine’s nine year old brother was thrown off of a roof, for playing soccer outside. Yet hearing these stories I didn’t feel hopeless. I felt privileged, I had gotten a chance to really see how these people lived, they had trusted me as I trusted them. I felt like I had to take these stories back home and tell people. Standing on those benches, looking down at all of my friends and looking sideways at the guilt stricken faces of my fellow Americans, I knew. Just like that, this conflict was no longer just something happening halfway across the world. This conflict was my life now. I would stop at no end until the Palestinians standing on bench 4 were standing next to me arm in arm on the 19th bench. I would not stop until the whole world knew. Suddenly, I had a passion, I had something I could do with my life, I felt strong and empowered. I knew I had to do something, and I knew I would.
I’ll share one last story. Later that day, I pulled my friend Dia’ (another Palestianian) aside. In our last group wide discussion he had said that he thought the only solution was a two state solution. “How could you believe that two separate states would truly be equal?” I asked him. And we debated, and truly heard each other out. By the end of the conversation we realized we had the exact same viewpoint. Who knew that, an American Jew like me, with such strong Jewish beliefs would ever have the exact same ideas as a strong minded Palestinian like him? We had come from such different backgrounds. After that conversation he told me that he never thought he and I would agree on anything, and after seeing the smoke in my ears after the timelines, he was shocked to hear these hopeful worlds of peace coming out of my mouth. Finally I knew something for sure. I had started to understand the other side, I knew that they were people just like me; they had hopes and dreams, fears and worries. People surprise you everyday if you just keep your mind open and your heart listening. And I knew that I will never know it all, I will never be able to have all the facts or feelings or stories but all I can do is keep learning, keep believing and keep challenging myself.