Travelling without political baggage

 
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By Dara Frank

Israelis and Palestinians travelling together without their political baggage can help pave the way to the mutual respect eventual peace requires.

Monday 13 February 2012

Photo: ©Dara Frank

“Why are you even going on this trip?” a friend of mine asked as I was heading out to meet the group Tiyul-Rihla (“trip” in Hebrew and Arabic) to begin our two-day tour through the West Bank. “Do you think this will solve the conflict?” I honestly don’t know what I thought. I half-expected the trip to be another one of “those” tours that takes you into the West Bank and just burdens you with the conflict, hatred and politics.

The group assembled outside our hotel in Beit Jalah was an even mix of Israelis and Palestinians. At first we awkwardly mulled around, waiting for instructions, making small talk. Then some members of the group who attended Tiyul-Rihla Part I – when the group travelled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – started arriving and greeting their friends from the first trip with huge hugs and shining smiles (that kind you only see on a person who has not seen a close friend in a long time). I think it was the first time I’d seen Israelis and Palestinians actively embracing one another.

The agenda of the trip was non-political in nature, with the idea that we would travel to places that have historical and cultural significance to the members of the group. That way, we could teach and learn from one another about our about our respective religions, histories and cultures. At the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho, we were able to focus on the significance of the menorah mosaic on the floor and not the recent political struggle involving the building. At Hisham’s Palace, our Palestinian group members were able to proudly tour us around the remains of this magnificent structure that was erected hundreds of years ago.

For security reasons, we had to be very careful not to identify ourselves as Israelis. However, one of the guides at the Sycamore Tree site saw right through our cover. After he told us the history of the place, he concluded by saying, “Now go home and tell your friends, tell your country, that we want peace.” This comment made the whole group smile – after all, that’s why we were there in the first place. I was particularly excited by this encounter because, as simple as it sounds, it is not obvious that everyone wants peace; hearing our guide say this gave me hope.

As the day continued, I started to think about the implications of what this man had said. I thought: good, we’re at a good starting point, we both want peace. This means that we’re not engaged in a fight between one side who wants peace and one side who does not want peace and we both recognise that. But what does his peace look like? Does it look like my peace?

The remainder of the evening involved dancing in a park in Jericho, drinking coffee at a café in the center of town, walking through the streets with my new friends, lighting Chanukah candles and singing songs with the group.

It was reflecting on these moments that I was able to see what peace would have to entail. In the end, if I truly want peace, my definition has to overlap with my Palestinian friends’ definition of peace, and theirs with mine. It is trips like Tiyul-Rihla that help achieve the first step towards this recognition because we, as participants, can all now match a face to an idea. When “the Palestinians” are no longer just this group of people that exist in the abstract but a nationality that my friends define themselves as, it is easier to look at the question of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. And when my new friends see Israel not as the enemy but as a nation where I live, hopefully they can also see that I have the right to live here too, as a Jew, in my own sovereign nation-state.

We can’t solve the conflict or bring peace, but we can help pave the way for people to respect the other’s rights – on both sides of the divide. On the most basic level, encounters like this allow us to realise and understand the right for the other to exist. In turn, on a slightly more nuanced level, it allows each side to respect the sovereignty and legitimacy of the other.  Without this seemingly simple recognition, it does not matter how much each side wants peace because our “peaces” won’t be the same.

To answer my friend’s question, no, I don’t think it will solve the conflict. But I do think it is paramount to the success of any resolution.

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