A Few Streets and a World Away


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Samantha Vinokor 

Originally published on the blog The Davidson School in Israel

Recently, I participated in an Encounter trip to East Jerusalem. A little background: Encounter is an organization that brings North American Jewish leaders to Palestinian areas, with the goal of exposing members of the Jewish community to Palestinian perspectives and narratives. It is not meant to be a dialogue group, but rather a chance to hear Palestinian voices about the conflict, and to reflect on those voices as Jews.

This was my first Encounter trip, and I was apprehensive. Many of my friends had gone on these trips and come back almost traumatized. They said that they heard things about Israel that made them "hate" it, and left having changed their views on the conflict entirely, sympathizing with the Palestinians as never before. Personally, I was firm in the conviction that my views would not change, but wanted to be exposed to a new perspective and gain new information to incorporate into my teaching and writing. On a personal level, I chose to go on the East Jerusalem trip because, as an Israeli citizen, I'm not able to go on many Encounter trips that go into Area A (an area of the West Bank that is completely under Palestinian authority). I also realized that, although I live in Jerusalem, I hadn't been to that part of the city since I'd moved here in 2012.

The evening began with introductions to the group. There was a wide range of ages and affiliations. I was pleasantly surprised to see several people like me (American Israelis) there for the evening, because I think that we're one of the most important demographics in this arena. We are people with deep connections to the North American Jewish community, but live here in Israel as Israelis. We all had the chance to share the questions with which we approached the experience. As always, in groups like this, I was fascinated by everyone else's queries; as an educator, I love hearing other people's perspectives and what they're hoping to get out of various Israel experiences.

As we began our walking tour from West Jerusalem to East, I was struck by how short the tour was. We walked along the outside of the Old City walls, a place that I often walk, and simply kept going. There was no physical barrier, but I definitely felt myself "crossing over," as we went past the imaginary line that separates East and West, and which usually serves as the turnaround point for me on my daily run. As we walked, stopping along the way to hear about the different buildings we were passing and their significance, everything felt (at least to me) very uncontroversial. I was gearing up to have my views challenged, and instead was hearing about East Jerusalem schools—interesting, but not upsetting.

Things took on a new significance as we continued our walk, heading to Salah al Din Street. It was described to us as the main commercial hub of East Jerusalem, and it looked totally foreign to me—a place I'd never been, and had never seen. When we got to our destination, the Educational Bookshop, I decided to "check in" to show my social media followers where I was. As the map came up, I realized that while I was a world away from my apartment, in a Palestinian area, I recognized all the street names around me. In reality, I was merely blocks from my home and my Jerusalem's own commercial hub, Ben Yehuda Street.

It struck me as unthinkably sad that, in this city, Jews and Arabs live so close to each other, and yet don't know each other, don't see each other. It's not like in other parts of the country where there are physical separations between Jews and Arabs. There's literally nothing stopping me from going to Salah al Din Street, just as there's nothing to stop any of the Encounter speakers from coming to Ben Yehuda Street, but we don't do it. The panel of Palestinians that addressed our group spoke about feeling uncomfortable speaking Arabic in West Jerusalem, and worried about being harassed in many areas of the city. All I could think was that I felt the same way in certain areas, both in East Jerusalem and in Haredi areas of the city.

I'm not going to describe everything I learned over the course of the evening. Instead, I want to focus on my main takeaway. One woman, a mother and professional who lives in Beit Hanina, spoke about being afraid that Jews would move into her area. She said that she did not like when Jewish Israelis come to her community in search of good hummus or kanafeh. In her words, "we've become the hummus-makers." There's some truth to this, and it's something that I previously thought about primarily in relationship to Abu Gosh, an Israeli Arab town near Jerusalem that many know only as "the place with the good hummus." How does it feel for residents to be reduced to this?

It is very clear that Western sensibilities are not in line with the situation on the ground here in this city. While many North Americans picture peace as Arab and Jew living side by side, that's not what we understood that the local residents we spoke with wanted. So, I've told this story, but where does the Zionism come in?

I came into the evening looking for new voices, wanting to understand my neighbors in this complicated city on a deeper level. As a committed Zionist and Israeli, I didn't leave with any new doubts about Israel, but rather with a sense of sadness about how hopeless the road to peace seems at times. It can be hard to hear these things, and to realize how hard it may be to achieve a true and lasting peace. But to be a modern Zionist is to believe in miracles while at the same time being realistic. Zionism is about creating Israeli society, shaping it into what Zionists want it to be, and the voices of Jerusalem Palestinians are a part of that society. Their voices should be heard and taken into account, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to hear them. Zionists don't need to be afraid of hearing "the other side." I came to Encounter with my knowledge and perspective, and came away with more, not less. None of my connections to Israel or Zionism were taken away; instead I gained a greater understanding of the challenges facing it, and how it needs to move forward.

Samantha Vinokor made aliyah in Jerusalem, Israel, in 2012, and is involved in recruiting and marketing for long-term Israel programs. She was previously a campus activist at the University of Pittsburgh. Samantha is completing an online master's degree in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.