Israel Reflections 2013–Introduction to the Old City

Much as I did in 2011, I will be posting some of the student reflections on the trip to Israel as the best way to reflect on the conflict.  I could brag about the students–what the students have learned, how being actually there is so important, how proud they made me with their insight and questions–but their words are so eloquent that I am mostly going to put them up on the blog directly with little editing.  This is from our first full day in Israel when we started our tour of Jerusalem with a view over the Old City.  Courtesy of Erika Frank Motsch:

I am standing atop the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem is before me. The time is near midday. On top of the land, I see every major monotheistic religion represented – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The sun is shining; the sky is a bright blue that makes you believe you can reach out and touch it with your finger-tips. The wind brings mixes the exhilarating and calm smells of spicy and clean. At once, three beautiful sounds fill the air: Christian church bells, the Islamic call to prayer, and a Jewish prayer in Hebrew coming from a group of Orthodox Jewish men below. I am in awe. In this moment, I feel the beauty of each faith.

In that exact moment, I also begin to realize how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so much deeper than one of land and politics.

I come to Israel educated. I learned the simple explanations, and perhaps arguably, the more complicated ones. The Palestinians, largely Muslims, feel ousted and oppressed. The Israelis, Jews, feel constantly threatened and carry with them the pain of the Holocaust and thousands of years of persecution before that. The Jews need a place where they can be free to practice and live – protected from harm and free to unite with one another. Both the Palestinians and the Jews lay a claim to the land. But standing here, this academic knowledge seems amateur and cold. Until I came to this land, I could not know. I could only learn. This conflict must be felt in your heart – through all five of your senses – to be truly understood.

Until I was here, I could not know. Until you are here, I do not believe you can know.

Once in Jerusalem, I tour the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters. In each, I learn more about each faith. More importantly, by brushing palms with the different followers, I am better able to grasp each follower’s identity within his or her own faith. I hear their language, I smell their smells, I see their communities. Prior to coming here, I learned this identity is what drives this conflict. Now I know the identities that drive the conflict.

At the end of the day, I stand with weary feet on the cold limestone in the heart of the Old City. Suddenly, my day ends as it started, with the sounds – the bells, the call to prayer, and Hebrew. But now, I can hear how they clash. Now I know why they clash. Now, I begin to wonder which person this week will unlock the ultimate question that will be the theme of the entire trip: where do we begin?

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