When I told people I was going to Palestine, almost everyone responded “But that’s so dangerous!” People constantly tried to persuade me not to go or check in with me a la “Are you suuuuuure you still want to go to Palestine?” If that was you, I truly appreciate your concern for my safety.
It soon became clear that many people’s fears about me going were based on a general, uninformed fear of the Middle East.
One co-worker of mine tried especially hard to convince me not to go. Initially he asked me why I was going; and I told him why and how important it was to me. He replied “but it’s so dangerous over there” and asked if there was any chance I might change my mind and not go. I replied “No, I’m definitely going and have already bought the plane tickets, but thank you for your concern.”
He then asked “Your parents are letting you go?! What if they threaten to stop supporting you financially? That’s what I would do if it was my kid” and I explained as nicely as I could that I am a grown-ass woman who has been independent from her parents since high school and while I love my parents, I make my own decisions.
He then he continued to go on and on about Palestine and Israel- even though he admittedly didn’t know much about it at all- while I was trying to get my work done. I called him out on the fact that he was uninformed and that I have been deeply involved in this subject matter for years, but he continued mansplaining to me about why I should be afraid to take this trip. After about 10 minutes I told him that if he had a problem with my decision, he was welcome to go fuck himself. Oops.
With most people, it didn’t go that far- they really just were concerned for my well-being and didn’t get obnoxious about it. But it seemed that at the base of their fear was a blurry, generalized wash of images from CNN broadcasts and headlines about ISIL and terrorism and overall chaos.
People’s fear actually made me a little nervous. I never considered backing out of the trip (I didn’t have the money to back out of the plane tickets anyway), but people’s fear made me a little more scared. I thought of all the internationals- including many Jews and including Ariel- who’d gone to Palestine before me and been absolutely fine. I thought to myself “Well Ariel’s been there before and now she’s bringing her kids, so that’s a good sign.” But I didn’t know what to expect.
When we arrived in Bil’in, any anxiety I had was immediately eased. I was blown away by the way the whole community welcomed us, looked out for us and treated us with such genuine warmth and generosity. I felt incredibly safe, and so did Ariel and the kids (we even kept our door unlocked at night.) When we went to Eizeriyya and stayed with the Awawda family, the same was the case. Likewise when we visited Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlahem- the care with which the Palestinian people treated us gave us every reason to feel safe. I am not a naïve person and I don’t trust easily, but I knew on every level that I didn’t have to feel nervous about being in Palestine.
The times that I didn’t feel safe were when there were Israeli soldiers involved. For example, at the demonstrations, there was real danger of being hit by teargas canisters (which kill people because they’re heavy metal objects shot out of big IDF guns) or rubber bullets. That being said, Iyad directed us in a way that we were able to participate safely. The soldiers and their guns and their willingness to enact barbaric, needless cruelty made me feel ill at ease, but we were fine.
When Ariel, Elijah, Isabella and I first went through Qualandiya Checkpoint, the Israeli soldier checking passports looked confused. He couldn’t comprehend why four Jews would be choosing to stay in the West Bank. “You know that’s really dangerous, right?” Once we got through the checkpoint, 12-year-old Isabella asked “Can we go back to Bil’in? I’m scared of the Israeli soldiers but I feel safe with the Palestinians.”
From the mouths of babes.
It is very, very important to understand that my ability to feel safe in Palestine was a privilege. Palestinians do not have the privilege of feeling safe because there is very real, legitimate danger of them facing violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers. Soldiers come and arrest Palestinians in their homes in the middle of the night for no reason (children included), settlers attack Palestinians by running them over with their cars, kidnapping them and burning them alive, etc. When little Muhamad Burnat was 5 years old, he was woken up in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers screaming and pointing their guns at him. Palestinians do not get to feel safe in their own homes. But I am Jewish and American, which means that if Israeli soldiers or settlers harmed me, it could easily turn into a public international debacle. That would be the last thing Israel wants for its PR, and knowing that made me less afraid of the soldiers.
It’s also important to examine the role of cultural attitudes in our fears. Whether consciously or sunconsciously, a significant chunk of people’s generalized fear of the Middle East comes from their perceptions of Arab people and cultures. Yes, this is where stereotypes, racism and Islamaphobia come in. Palestinians (and all Muslims and Arabs) are constantly characterized as violent, extremist, anti-Semitic terrorists. The only Palestinian stereotype that I found to be true was the one about liking to smoke hookah- all the others proved to be blatantly, egregiously false.
This fear of Palestinian people and spaces is very much encouraged by the Israeli government. With further segregation efforts come further efforts to keep Israeli Jews from interacting with Palestinians. This lack of interaction enables people to be fearful, because they do not get to form human connections to refute the stereotypes and dispel the unnecessary fears. On every road that leads to Palestinian areas, there are signs reminding Israelis that it’s illegal for them to enter these spaces. Israel does not let its own people enter Palestine because they want Israelis to believe that Palestine and its people are dangerous and hostile toward them. The signs read “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.” Let me reiterate: that’s not Palestinian law keeping them out, that’s Israeli law working to keep its own citizens from seeing the realities on the ground in Palestine. When Israeli Jews manage to break the law and enter Palestine to stand in solidarity with its people, they are wholeheartedly welcomed. They are pleasantly surprised by the fact that they are much, much safer than they thought they would be.
Ignorance is not always bliss; sometimes ignorance is scary. Sometimes learning can actually illuminate issues in a way that distinguishes what warrants fear and to what degree, and what does not. With this level of understanding, we don’t have to react to everything with knee-jerk anxiety. We should examine what we are afraid of and why, and whether or not the cause of fear calls for further investigation and understanding.