Going to Israel and Palestine to see for myself – Kylie Stephens

In a few weeks I will be in Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Peace Builders, thanks to a scholarship from the local Abrahamic Initiative on the Middle East. In the months since finding out I was picked as one of two scholarship recipients, I have shared my exciting news only to be met with blank stares and the oft-repeated statement, “Don’t you know those people hate us?”

This phrase always comes after I mention that for much of the trip I will be traveling through the West Bank. Most people I’ve spoken with know I’m a graduate student in Peace and Conflict studies, and that my principal area of interest is the Middle East, yet I repeatedly find myself being admonished as a naïve, uninformed peacenik.

This experience has led me to believe that, in the average American consciousness, Israel is perceived as a perfectly acceptable and interesting place to visit. Bring up traveling to Palestine, however, and the listener’s curiosity quickly turns to shock and suspicion. This compulsion to label and avoid critical exploration of topics that don’t fit a preconceived notion is becoming an all too familiar hallmark of our current political and cultural climate.

Kylie Stephens

I don’t pretend to be an expert on all things Israel-Palestine but I have spent considerable time studying this conflict. The majority of my knowledge comes from scholarly works and international law, not from direct contact with Israelis and Palestinians. With this in mind, I realize my perceptions of this conflict are not a true representation of the realities of everyday life in Israel and Palestine. This is why I am excited to participate in this delegation. I hope to return with lived experiences through interaction with a diverse array of Israelis and Palestinians. Two weeks in-country obviously cannot result in a comprehensive understanding of the situation, but it is certainly more enlightening than living with the assumption that an entire population, “hates us,” without reason.

I don’t expect everyone to share an interest in a regional conflict half a world away. What surprised me was the sense of authority that invariably accompanied the “don’t you know they hate us” statement. I quickly discovered that most of these individuals had never heard of U.N. Resolution 242, which way back in 1967 called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied during the recent war, or the Fourth Geneva Convention, which stated an occupying power cannot transfer its civilian population to occupied territories. Through conversations with these individuals, it became clear their authoritative stance on the Israel/Palestine issue stems from a conviction that the United States must stand-by its Israeli ally and protect Judeo-Christian values. It seems there is no room to consider Islam’s shared Abrahamic roots with Judaism and Christianity nor the fact that over 50,000 Palestinian Christians live in the Occupied Territories.

Even if this is not enough to compel the average American to rethink the Israel/Palestine dynamic, taking a closer look at state and federal legislation should be cause for concern. In North Carolina, HB 161, the Anti-Israel Boycott Law, was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper. At the federal level, HR 1697 and S 720, are before both houses of Congress. These bills, at both the state and federal level, seek to prevent Americans from using their economic freedom of choice to express personal opposition to Israeli actions. Each of these pieces of legislation threatens our right as Americans to use boycotts as a form of protest. Laws like these impinge on our freedoms by criminalizing free speech and preventing the public from being able to engage in peaceful protest.

Beyond seeking a religious connection or heightening personal awareness of laws being passed in our own country, Americans should care about the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine simply because of the human factor. This does not mean every American is obligated to be an expert on all human conflict around the world, rather I am simply calling for Americans to do a better job of seeing the humanity in all people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality. We’ve become an “us vs. them” society that looks with suspicion instead of interest at people who are willing to engage both sides of a conflict.