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July 11, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Holy Land

As we were walking off of the plane in Ben Gurion Airport, it hit me: I was in Israel!  I was in disbelief for about 30 minutes as we waited for security.  My entire life I knew nothing of Israel but that it had no right to take away land from the Palestinians.  And while I dubbed myself a liberal and intellectual, as I learned more about the conflict and immersed myself in Jewish thought, I felt uncomfortable walking in the airport.  Was I a hypocrite for being in this country?  Was I just dreaming when I thought that I can forget my past and come to terms with the present?  Was I really as tolerant as I hoped I was? These were all questions I had to face, answer and challenge.

As we drove into Jerusalem and walked around, I realized that I could literally feel the history of the city.  Known as the founding city of Abrahamic faiths, Jerusalem is sight not to be missed.  Perhaps my own bias and beliefs were clouding my judgment, but I felt at peace as I prayed right next to my Christian and Jewish friends in the Wailing Wall and heard the call to prayer from masjid Al-Aqsa synchronize with the church bells ringing.  As the sun set on our evening walk, I realized why this city is so contested.  This was no ordinary city; this was a piece of heaven.

Unfortunately, this ambiance of religious tolerance is quickly clouded by the stifling politics of the region.  As I finished my prayer in Masjid Al-Aqsa, a group of Palestinian moms from Nablus approached me asking me what I was doing there.  I told them that I was visiting for a day and then got in a conversation with them about their life in the West Bank.  Apparently, they have been trying to visit Jerusalem for five years now, and just yesterday were they given permission.  They talked to me about how they feel restricted, humiliated and ashamed.  They told me that people like me forgot about them, that the rest of the world no longer cares.  What struck me the most were the two daughters that escorted me around the mosque.  The girls told me that the Israelis were trying to demolish the mosque by building tunnels underneath; they then walked me to a few holes in the ground that apparently led to the graving site next to the Wailing Wall.  I told them not to make blank accusations and to look for solutions not just sweeping generalizations.  At the end of the day, it hurt me to know just how far to the right this movement had gone, and no one sees an end in sight.

As I was walking out of the mosque I began to talk with one of the waqf members about praying in Mecca the previous week and how overwhelming that experience had been.  I felt humbled by the stories I was telling and privileged for having such a life changing experience.  To have prayed in two of the holiest Muslim sites rejuvenated my soul and spirit.

As the trip continued and I met my share of right-wing settlers in the West Bank, progressive Israelis, members of the Palestinian waqf and discontent Israeli-Arabs, I started to see shreds of a silver lining.  Aside from the people that were wrapped up in this ideological fantasy, there were great deals of people making changes happen.  And I began to realize that two things needed to happen if peace can ever be achieved: progressive Palestinians need to find a means through which they can more effectively join efforts with other Palestinians and Israelis  and Israeli Arabs needed to be integrated into the society and used as a bridge into normalizing relations with the Arab world and hopefully a future Palestinian state.  While both of these things are lofty and perhaps too idealistic, I am sure of their importance and have already started talking with Dalia (a major educational leader in Israel for Arabs living in the state) to move forward with the Arab-made curriculum she began developing.

-Aya Saed

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