Reflections on our Visit to a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Tuesday, March 1

Written by Mike Diamond

On Tuesday, March 1st we spent the day in the West Bank. Our first stop was the Israeli settlement in Efrat and a discussion with its mayor – the same person we met two years ago. He continues to be optimistic – but he seems less creditable to me now than in 2014. We then traveled to Ramallah for a tour of the city and most importantly for walk through the Al-Amari Palestinian Refugee Camp. This walk through guided by Rami Nazzai – a Palestinian activist — was a sobering experience. Here are some initial thoughts –initial as it will take more than just a few days to process all this.

This trip has been a battle for our hearts and mind. One way to view our visits and discussions is that this trip has really been a battle for our hearts and minds. Our discussions, whether with Israelis (Rabbis, mayors, intellectuals, tour guides or others) and Palestinians such as Rami are to varying degrees aimed at getting us to buy into their view of the world. Except for one person, Israelis tend to be more subtle and present more intellectually appealing arguments, while Palestinians tend to be more in your face. I say this not to dismiss what we have heard, seen or lived but to remind myself we have to put all this into some perspective. This is why our debriefing meeting after the Refugee Camp visit was critical, as well as were the many discussions amongst us on the bus or over meals.

As Jews what is our obligation to help fix the world – in this case the Al-Amari Refugee Camp? I don’t live in Israel and I did nothing personally to create the horrible situation in the refugee camps. One thing we learned is blame for the refugee camp is joint and impossible to separate amongst all the players. The Arabs and the current Palestinian Authority keep the refugees camps they way they are as a symbol of the Israeli occupation or Jewish Zionism or whatever they call it. There is ample evidence that little or none of the money the Palestinian Authority gets from the UN, the European or others goes into the camps. Nonetheless the Israeli occupation is like a vice around these camps – I could not help but feel if I lived under these conditions for 50 years I would be on the front lines of a revolt!

Having said all this, what is my obligation as an American Jew to do something, however small it may be, to help alleviate the conditions in the West Bank and other camps? Don’t our Jewish values and our own story and beliefs (Passover, as an example) force us to rebel against the idea of enslaving (enslaving is probably not the right word here) others and do something about it? Or can we say that the survival of Israel as a democratic Jewish state means we have to overlook the current conditions and just live with what Israel, the Arab countries and the Palestinians have created for themselves, especially in the short term (is the short term 50 years?) as we wait for some elusive peace. Of course, these are the extremes, but in many ways these are the extremes in which we and almost the entire world have divided ourselves.

For me, walking through the Al-Amari Refugee Camp left an empty feeling in me that I am not living up to what I believe – both as an American – the right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and as a Jew to live by the values of my history and culture. I am frustrated because I do not know what to think, what do to or even how to feel. And, of course, it is easy to ask what can one person do to make a difference so why even try or worry about it? My biggest fear is that I will return to LA in a few days, wash myself of all this disgust and move on with my life as if none of this really affects me. I hope that my fellow travelers help keep me from doing this and push all of us in the Isaiah Community to confront the realities in Israel that challenge our values. One thing for sure – focusing on the reality of the Palestinian camps and all the other issues Israel is facing as it grows as a nation that is both Jewish and democratic and equitable across all dimensions is not something we only do once every two years, but is something we need to do every day. Paraphrasing the words of others on our trip we have to both “hug and struggle” (don’t recall the exact words) with Israel and with our own values every day.

 

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