As Northwest Regional Director of Kids4Peace, I was often met with looks of surprise when people learned that I had never been to Israel/Palestine. Since starting work last fall, I have been giving myself a crash course in Israeli and Palestinian history, culture, and politics, but I have been longing to visit and see it for myself, and also to meet in person the wonderful colleagues I have been communicating with via email and Skype over the past months. From June 3-10, I got my wish: a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and Ramallah.
I arrived in Jerusalem just as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, was starting. One of the ways that people celebrate Shavuot is through all-night study sessions, and it was amazing to see the streets of Jerusalem packed with people on their way to study sessions all over the city. It was even more amazing to wake up early the next morning and see the streets just as packed, filled with tired people on their way home.
Part way through the trip, I joined five other Kids4Peace staffers on an afternoon trip to Ramallah. For many, this was our first time going to the West Bank. We visited the tomb and museum dedicated to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and we met with the staff of another non-governmental organization, Palestine Education for Employment, that provides additional skills training to university graduates to help them secure jobs. Traveling through the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah was a sobering reminder of how difficult travel can be for people who live only miles apart.
I also enjoyed a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, seeing some of the holiest sites in Judaism (the Western Wall), Islam (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), and Christianity (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). As a former history teacher, I find the layers of history in Jerusalem to be almost beyond comprehension. From the ancient Israelites, to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Byzantines, to the Ottomans, to the British, and to many others in between, when we look at how many people have controlled this area, it becomes easier to understand why it is such contested territory.
Despite the difficult and complicated history, the trip also affirmed my belief that people are capable of working together to solve the conflict and that people want peace in the region. When I see how dedicated our staff are and how hard they work to bring our kids together — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish — I have hope for the future of the region.
Meeting our kids and families in Jerusalem also gave me hope. Just before I left, I had the opportunity to meet with all of the kids who will be coming to Seattle this summer, along with their parents. The whole Seattle team looks forward to welcoming them in a just a few weeks!
I want to give special thanks to our Jerusalem co-directors, Mohammad Joulany and Rebecca Sullum, and to the rest of the Jerusalem staff for their warm hospitality and help in making my trip memorable.