It's... Complicated

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Published in InsideVandyby André Rouillard

Upon returning from any kind of extended traveling, the same questions always arise: Where did you go? What did you see? What was it like? It’s often easy to distill our time away from home into an itinerary structured by the times we did things and the places at which we did them. But when I told my friends and loved ones that I spent 10 days in Israel over winter break, they were less predictable in their reactions and I found it difficult to respond to their questions — both facts testament to the nature of the polarizing place that I’d been visiting.

From inquiring into the level of rocket-based danger (there wasn’t any) to asking whether or not I was Jewish (I’m not), the questions that were asked of me when I returned only made the purpose of my trip clearer. The trip, which was graciously provided to me for free by an Israel advocacy organization called The David Project, was pitched as a no-strings-attached leadership development program with 30 or so other college students from around the country. We’d be seeing all the important sites and doing all the important things, with the intention of gaining at least a superficial understanding of a country about which misconceptions are in no short supply. However, even with this information, I found myself asking the following: Why is someone paying for me to be here? It is still difficult for me to lay out concisely what made my trip so special — I’ve been continuously editing my personal narrative in my head ever since I got back — but it’s proof of just how significant the experience was that I’m still not satisfied with how well I can talk about it and about what I learned.

Perhaps the most common phrase heard by the students on this trip was “Israel is complicated.” This assertion is likely obvious to any American observer based on the conflicting reports and partisan dialogue heard on the news and in political discourse every single day, and one could be mistaken for thinking that actually being in Israel would help clear up some of this complication. However, between listening to Arab-Israeli, Ethiopian-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli speakers, their perspectives on being Israeli and where they think their country is and should be headed, things only grew more complicated. It became immediately clear that racial, ethnic, religious and historical differences are forces that will not be overcome in the foreseeable future. For example, one speaker disagreed with the comparison of the Arab-Israeli struggle in Israel to that of the African American, while another speaker later explicitly disagreed with this analogy. The catch: Both speakers were Arab-Israeli.

But there are ways to clear up these issues. One of the highlights of my own narrative was an off-the-record discussion held with most students in the group about their decision to touch or connect with certain holy sites based on their respective faiths (or lack thereof). The point here wasn’t to find an answer to the objective or dogmatic rightness or wrongness of being willing to connect with a faith that isn’t one’s own; rather, I gained a greater understanding of others’ perspectives while simultaneously reinforcing the reasons for believing what I do. And if everyone is willing to engage in this kind of open, honest dialogue with one another, complicated issues (like Israel, for example) will be understood and dealt with in ways that leave everyone better off.

I didn’t use to and still don’t have a “stance” on Israel, something I’m grateful that The David Project didn’t push discussion on over the course of the trip. I’m not “pro-Israel,” and I’m not a Palestinian sympathizer, but I don’t want my reluctance to pick a side to be seen as a cop-out. One thing that I did learn for certain is that it is difficult — impossible really — to determine which land belongs to whom and for what reasons. But another thing that I learned is that letting this admittedly important and well-publicized issue define the discussion surrounding Israel is both dangerous and pointless. Israel is more than disputed land and religious tension.

So what is Israel? Israel is Jewish. It is young, modern and ancient. It is backwards. It is diverse. It is racist. It is peaceful. It is violent. It is religious. it is secular. It is rainy and it is dusty. It is fertile. It is green. It is brown. It is welcoming. It is proud. It is emotional. It is challenging. It is changing. It is divided. It is rich, it is poor. It is irrational. Israel is all of these things, and as a result, Israel is indeed complicated.

That is what I did, where I did it and what it was like. My trip was more than pushing my way through crowded markets and bars in Tel Aviv; more than walking the Via Dolorosa; more than bobbing up and down in the Dead Sea; more than cutting my knee open on Masada and getting stitches; more than tasting wine in the Golan Heights; more than an 8 a.m. Saturday run through a misty, still-sleeping Jerusalem and more than sliding a folded note into the Western Wall. Regardless of the emotional or spiritual energy I invested in these things relative to others on the trip, the important thing is that I did them in the first place. My trip was doing and talking about things that made me uncomfortable, learning to stand for what I believe in while it is being challenged and pushing myself to understand where others were coming from emotionally, religiously and culturally. It was immersing myself in places and ideas that were foreign to me. It was missing the first week of school so I could have these experiences.

I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in Israel in order that I could grasp why people feel so strongly about it as a place, as an ideal and as an identity. And while I’m still coming to an understanding of these things, my visit ensured that I began to actually care about understanding these things long after I’d boarded my departure flight at Ben Gurion International.

I’m starting to realize why my trip was paid in full: Israel is a place so special that it is literally worth thousands of dollars to some people that someone else — politics and religion aside — be able to experience this specialness in person and to understand how complex Israel is while learning to properly handle this complexity.

In this vein, getting someone to care about something as much as you do is the first step in furthering a cause: It gets the ball rolling without you having to continuously push it along. But in being the activist, you do have to put in the effort and give it that first nudge to get things started. This trip, for me, was that nudge.

— André Rouillard is a junior in the College of Arts and Science and Opinion editor of The Hustler. He can be reached at andre.p.rouillard@vanderbilt.edu.