By Joshua Holt, Nottingham Student
When I left for Israel on the UJS Manhigut trip, I had no idea what to expect. I have always had a huge interest in the conflict and wider region, however I was nervous at what would come of me challenging my views, which I had formed comfortably in my Jewish school and apolitical university campus.
The first full day of the trip eased me into the confusion that was about to follow. My experience on the Temple Mount shocked me greatly, as our tour was interrupted by the virulent harassment of a Chareidi couple, who were followed around by veiled women shouting “Allah-hu Akbar” for the full half an hour they were on the site. What shocked me even more was the graffiti I saw on the side of the Dome of the Rock, and the youths who were playing football on the plaza outside the al-Aqsa Mosque.
I found the lack of respect given to Islam’s third holiest site particularly odd, as it made me wonder how we can ever respect each other if we cannot even respect ourselves.
When visiting the West Bank, we heard from the managing director of the Portland Trust in Ramallah, Kamel Husseini. The Portland Trust’s focus on economic improvement as a path towards peace and Husseini’s refreshing approach towards positive engagement with Israel seemed like a stride in the right direction. However, my optimism was short lived as immediately after meeting with the Portland Trust we heard from the Commissioner of International Relations of Fateh and former Chief Palestinian Negotiator Dr. Nabeel Shaath. Dr. Shaath’s narrative was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in and had ever read or learnt about the peace processes, however it was a rare insight into the mind-set of the PA, and as such was enormously valuable. His refusal to accept even a shred of Palestinian responsibility for the failure of a two-state solution was deeply frustrating, whilst his focus on Palestinian victimhood starkly contrasted the proactive approach taken by the Portland Trust.
For me, one of the most telling experiences of the trip was on the Golan Heights, whereby I saw UN observer forces on the Israeli side of the border with (what is left of) Syria, as they were too fearful to be stationed in Syria itself.
The fact that Israel is expected to entrust the UN with critical elements of its security as part of any peace settlement, yet this same UN cannot even fulfil simple observation duties, seemed completely ludicrous.
The various analysts throughout the trip had all given different reasons to explain Israel’s political stagnation, however after seeing the UN in the Golan I finally felt as if I understood the reason behind this status quo, which until this point I had viewed as an outsider with frustration.
At this point in the trip the ‘Netanyahu Mantra’ of fear and distrust seemed, much to my irritation, to be speaking to me. The UN cannot be trusted to enforce armistice agreements, Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear capabilities, the Palestinians cannot be trusted with a state, and the international community cannot be trusted to care about Israel’s security.
However after hearing from former Yesh Atid MK, Rabbi Dr. Dov Lipmanand other representatives, I was able to see this very basic understanding of the region for what it is: an excuse for the prolonging of the status quo.
Israel’s concerns are legitimate, however these speakers demonstrated the necessity of finding a balance that will allow progress to be made and security to be retained.
Manhigut has allowed me to change the way I view Israel completely, and despite all the problems I witnessed, has revitalised my Zionism into something new and much more progressive.