By Alex Lazarus-Klein
The two words none of us wanted to hear after our 10-day excursion to Israel in January were, “it’s complicated.”
We were a group of 23 participants from two synagogues and two Presbyterian churches in the Buffalo area, on a tour of not only our holiest of sites, but also of the political dynamic in one of the most contentious regions in the world.
In short, we wanted it all, both an opportunity to walk in the path of our ancestors and to better understand the day-to-day experience of those living there now.
To complete our mission, which was supported by our synagogues and churches, as well as the Jewish Federation of Buffalo, we met with a variety of people of differing political perspectives to try to gain an understanding of what they were experiencing on the ground.
Starting in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, we navigated north up the coast to Caesarea, and Acre, then west to Tiberius, until returning south to spend the remainder of the trip in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
January tends to be damp and cold in Israel (not Buffalo cold, but cold nonetheless), but we hit a mild and dry patch, where the weather hovered in the 50s and 60s for most of our trip. This enabled us to comfortably explore the ancient ruins of a place whose roots go back some 4,000 years or more. But it also allowed us to go out and talk to locals – Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish and Christian.
In Givat Haviva, a small kibbutz in the Northern Galilee dedicated to peace between Jews and Arabs, we met with a British expat and peace activist, who explained the complexities of the Green Line dividing Israel and Palestine, and then we talked directly to an Arab worker who described the challenges he had in getting to and from work on a daily basis.
In Acre, we met with a Palestinian Muslim who, after being helped as a young man by Jews, chose to dedicate his life to bringing Jewish and Muslim children together on a regular basis.
Later in the week, we went north to Misgav Am, a military outpost abutting the borders of Syria and Lebanon, where a lively Israeli transplant originally from Cleveland described the challenges of living so close to your enemies.
Most memorable was our time in Bethlehem, where we were hosted by different Palestinian Christian families, some of whose families had lived in the area for hundreds of years. They served us authentic Middle Eastern food, while describing the reality of living in a city that requires special papers to exit.
And while we saw the traditional sites – the Mount of Beatitudes in Tiberius, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Masada and the Dead Sea – it was not the scenery but the people who stood out. They were warm, passionate and determined to make a life at peace with their neighbors.
But the path forward is by no means clear. It is, in short, complicated.
Our group, made up largely of retirees, many of whom attended or worked at Buffalo Seminary together, had a lot to take in. I had been to Israel many times before, but I had never visited the Christian sites. For the majority of the people in our group, the experience was entirely new. They listened, asked thoughtful questions and tried to get to the root of what was really going on.
But each new speaker, each new location, brought different insights, until all of us, including me, were successfully confused. Perhaps, this is the very definition of a productive trip.