Common ground: Thoughts on ‘ground truth’ in Israel


I write from Jerusalem, as always, challenged and worried about the fate of the national home of the Jewish people — and again inspired by the aspirations for freedom and security of all peoples living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Days earlier, in line for the connecting flight from Philadelphia, I was surrounded by the full variety of American Jews, Chasidim, hipsters, harried families, who share an anticipation of touching ground – and maybe touching what I like to call “ground truth” – in Israel.  At the Ben-Gurion Airport arrival hall, I witness a 30-strong Birthright group arms linked in a hora welcoming what is to come – dancing into a landscape they will see for the first time – and now we are all out the door to encounter our Israel(s).  I ponder what my purpose here – engaging with profoundly entangled, conflict-weary Israelis, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Americans and more — might offer to those first-timers stepping into a connection to which they were indeed born.

Over three days in January, I journey to Gush Etzion in Area C of the West Bank to meet with a forward-looking, reality-minded group of Israelis and Palestinians. They live close to the ground zero that hatched last summer’s conflict, near the junction where three Israeli hitchhikers were murdered – roads that wind back to a Jerusalem still inflamed by the revenge killing of a young Palestinian boy.

Today, on Palestinian-owned land dominated by the surrounding Jewish settlements, there is outreach, across asymmetries of power and circumstance, to find some of that ground truth together – Palestinians rooted to their people and their land; but shattered by occupation; unable to self-determine their political, economic and even family destinies.  They stand face-to-face with their Israeli neighbors who have been called to this same land by millennia of Jewish connection – lifted up by the deeds of ancestors and of their contemporary brothers and sisters who brought forth a national home for a globally battered Jewish people.

It’s my privilege to join these valorous Israelis in the difficult task of fully recognizing the plight and aspirations of their valorous Palestinian neighbors. Together they engage in a steady build-up of practical activities, seeking understanding, holding a firm commitment to nonviolence, but always with an eye on the prize of transformation – transformation of a zone of conflict into something that must become better.

In Tel Aviv, I pass news media and demonstrators at the scene of that morning’s terror, word circulating of serious casualties from the stabbing on a bus from Bat Yam. It’s the series of connections, meeting and actions that allow this glimpse of all too frequent horror to be held in the same consciousness which knows that efforts to support hope grow ever more necessary and urgent.

I spend the afternoon with staff from the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street and a visiting trade union delegation from the United States, hearing their Israeli counterparts’ accounts of this past summer’s war, and of a lifetime of living conflict. We are briefed by the IDF on its priorities in coping with regional threats, and two members of Knesset share their views on coming elections and prospects for Israel and its neighbors going forward. From those meetings I check in on projects I am involved with at EcoPeace Middle East-Israel, a joint effort with Palestinian and Jordanian branches on water resource cooperation among communities and officials.  And then I am off to exchange views in Ramallah.

It’s hearing and discussing such a variety of opinion and having such experiences that compel me to attend the national conference of J Street, which will be held from March 21 to March 24 in Washington. J Street is an advocacy organization whose growth and development I have been part of for the past five years.

These have been tumultuous years in the American Jewish conversation about Israel. J Street’s views on what might be done to bring resolution for both Israelis and Palestinians have, to put it mildly, not gone unchallenged. But I believe that the search for ground truth, for common ground among American Jews on a peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis, is deep and wide – despite some profound differences and fears.

At the home of a U.S. diplomat in Israel, I sit next to a woman I have just met and tell her all about my visits in Area C, one of the areas over the Green Line. It sounds familiar to her, something she might want to share with her colleagues. We later confirm that a rabbinic group sponsored by the Israel office of AIPAC, where she worked, had spent time there listening and learning with my Israeli and Palestinian friends.

So, I will go to the AIPAC policy conference, which will take place from March 1 to March 3 in Washington, despite my strong policy differences with AIPAC, to bring witness of what I have experienced and find opportunity to listen and learn.

Stephen Stern is co-chair of J Street, DC Metro Chapter.

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