Last year I was lucky enough to travel through Israel and the Palestinian territories. Besides visiting your standard tourist attractions, such as the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, I got to wander off the beaten tourist tracks and spend time in the West Bank and other fairly unknown places. Here are seven valuable things that I learned during my travels.
1. Israel is incredibly green. For some stupid reason I didn’t expect to find many trees, bushes and plants in general but when I visited Galilee in the North of Israel I was astonished by the variety and beauty of the landscape. Israel is far more than just desert and wasteland!
2. Entering the Palestinian areas feels like entering a different world. Don’t get me wrong, as an Oriental studies student I was well aware of what to expect when visiting the Palestinian territories. Still, the reality of social disparities made me feel incredibly sad and angry at the same time. Meeting Kamal, a young Palestinian from Bethlehem, increased this feeling. His family had lost a huge portion of their lands when Israel built an illegal wall to protect themselves from terrorist attacks. If you ever get to visit Israel, please take the time to get to know Palestine and learn about the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict!
3. There actually are Palestinian Christians. Nobody seems to ever talk about them but they are a part of Palestinian society. Even though politicians as well as radical groups on both sides of the conflict try to convince us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict purely takes place between Jews and Muslims, people from all religions and walks of life are affected. Many Christian Palestinians actually have fled their homes but it is estimated that 40.000 remain living in Palestine.
4. Orthodox Jews go on blind dates just like the rest of us. It took me two nights in my hotel in Jerusalem to understand why so many young orthodox couples were spending the evening in the hotel lobby. A young man finally explained to me that there are agencies who arrange blind dates for orthodox Jews, who then meet a couple of times in public places before they decide whether they want to get married or not. Two hours later he left the hotel with a big smile on his face…
5. The Palestinian town of Bethlehem is quite famous, not only because Jesus was born there but because graffiti artist Banksy beautified the illegal wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories in 2007. As soon as you pass the checkpoint you can’t help but gaze at the spray paintings that were intended to help the citizens of Bethlehem who have been suffering under the decreasing number of tourists visiting their town. Even though Banksy’s art has not been received positively by every Palestinian, I was still pretty impressed.
6. There is a major difference between guilt and responsibility. Entering the heart-breaking holocaust memorial Yad Vashem as a 25 year old German gives you the creeps. How could my ancestors let this happen? How can I make restitution for the crimes that my people committed? In the end you realize that dealing with the holocaust is not about feeling guilty; it is about taking on the responsibility for the future.
7. Instead of making political decisions based on religious differences, the world should do politics based on the actual needs of human beings. Prejudice, hate as well as lack of understanding have led to an unbearable division between Israelis and Palestinians. This conflict is way too complicated to be solved easily but putting aside religious delusion would definitely be the first step in the right direction!