Experiencing Israel within the tension of perceptions and politics

If you had asked me two years ago what was the likelihood of me traveling to Israel, I would have said 5 percent, simply because I always like to leave some room for the universe to surprise me.
October 20, 2016

If you had asked me two years ago what was the likelihood of me traveling to Israel, I would have said 5 percent, simply because I always like to leave some room for the universe to surprise me.

My aversion to Israel was mostly due to negative feelings in my LGBTQ community. I know a lot of smart, queer Jewish folks who strongly support boycotting Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. As these things do, it boiled down to a sound bite: Israel commits apartheid against the Palestinians, apartheid is bad and therefore Israel is bad. The politics of the situation were directly in conflict with my values. I believe that all human beings deserve food, water, joy and the ability to put their children to bed without fear for their safety. 

Not having a lot of financial access to international travel — I write a body liberation LGBTQ blog and work a lot of gigs to be able to do that — I never considered Israel as a possible destination. I’m not Jewish; it never felt like a big loss.

My partner’s father, Mel, passed away two years ago while she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. Being Jewish was very important to him, but Dara had complicated feelings about Judaism, in part because in trying to make spaces where Jews feel safe, she feels they have fallen out of alignment with their values. For her, core values of repairing the world would not result in how the present-day politics are playing out in the West Bank.

Still, Dara wanted to honor him by going to Israel with Reality Global, a project of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. I was certain this almost entirely subsidized weeklong trip was a brainwashing expedition. When she returned with reports about all of the different perspectives about the Palestinian conflict and a desire to find more ways to connect with Judaism, I was shocked. I met people from her trip who are very smart and who care about repairing the world. They were not brainwashed.

One of her cohort encouraged me to apply to the inaugural Reality Storytellers trip, bringing together journalists, writers, movie producers, documentarians, actors, speechwriters and more. A descendent of the tribe of Levi, my grandfather is buried on the Mount of Olives, and I knew it would probably be my only chance to visit his grave. I was also moved by assurances from a lot of people I respect that the trip was balanced with a lot of nitty-gritty about the conflict. 

I like to base my decisions around my values and faith rather than on fear. I know that peace doesn’t come from avoiding conflict; it comes from looking at the things that challenge it and creating solutions. I was excited to learn about peace solutions from Israelis and Palestinians directly and not through the media. 

And it turns out Israel was nothing like what I expected. 

We learned from the most incredible tour guide, Michael Bauer, who had me feeling like I was earning a master’s degree in Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bible and modern-day Middle East conflict.

The pace of the trip was challenging —practically moving all day from 6:30 a.m. to midnight (at least). Absorption was difficult as we hurtled from experience to experience. Folks who have been to Israel before cannot believe how much we did.

We toured the radio station Galatz and learned how media in Israel both interact with and stem from the military. It was fascinating to learn about how mandated military service affects Israelis. The reality of your children having to risk their lives in that way changes how you interact with politics. I think that U.S. politics would be very different if we had compulsory military service.

Visiting the Western Wall was challenging to me as someone who believes gender is beyond binary. The fact that the Orthodox rules require men and women to pray separately is a barrier to participation for many folks I love, including genderqueer people and all the women rabbis I know. I was happy to visit the new mixed-gender area under construction, to get to touch the Wall and put my energy into an ancient site that is now a site of compromise reflecting the diversity of the modern Jewish experience. 

We had the fortune to sit with a survivor from Auschwitz while she told us her story in a room at Yad Vashem. She had the same accent as my grandfather — strongly Eastern European. I sobbed so hard in the bathroom for how horrific the Holocaust was and how grateful I was that my grandfather escaped.

The same day, during a precious two hours of free time, I took a taxi to the Mount of Olives. I didn’t have time or capacity to figure out how to get right to my grandfather’s actual gravesite, but I visited and traded rocks from my home in Los Angeles with the area beside the graveyard. It felt like the best possible day to honor my grandfather escaping the horror of the Holocaust, and what a sweet ending his story has, to have been married to my smart and beautiful grandmother for 35 years. 

Israel is a country that embodies contradictions. Holding multiple conflicting perspectives seems common — some people desire peace but also fear for the safety of their children. We took an ATV ride to a war-torn building on the Syrian border, where our guide taught us about the history of the conflict in Syria. We were looking over the gorgeous Golan Heights and heard bombs going off. I felt the beauty of the place and the heartbreak of the  millions who have had to flee the country because of the ceaseless war. I felt both hopeless to help, given the enormity of the conflicts in the Middle East, and the unavoidable urge to try. 

Returning home, I was broken open — I felt shifts in my perspective on myself and on the world. That was a common theme among the lifelong friends I made on that tour bus in Israel, which also included a pass through the West Bank. We talked a lot about the power of Storytellers to change the world. We keep people alive telling their stories; we open hearts and minds through sharing experiences. 

I started blogging about the trip when I got home. I had to say something; I had to describe to the people in my life and my readers what it was like. How Israel is so much more than conflict — it’s more about resilience and how hard it is in the modern world to accommodate all of the different people and values within it. 

It’s hard to “come out” in the LGBTQ community when you have an opinion that goes against radical politics. I believe boycotts are one solution to problems but only work when in concert with other modalities, something I believed before I took this trip. The problem with boycotts and sound bite activism is that it drowns out other solutions and the ways people can act to create change. I had to steel myself for criticism and lost friendships.

I’ve kept the focus of my writing on how the trip increased my capacity as a leader and a writer. How my work to make the world safe for people to love themselves is strengthened by the depth of the experience. My hope is that I help people understand more about the human side of the conflict, and understand that diversity is a human mandate. 

Our world is made up of so many different people who are further diversifying. We need to create safety and the ability to thrive for everyone.  I left with many more questions and greater curiosity, specifically about the LGBTQ community in Israel and the West Bank, how they navigate the tensions of diversity, values and politics, how they work for peace, and how they stay resilient. 

Two years ago, I never would have thought I would travel to Israel. Now, I know I must return.

BEVIN BRANLANDINGHAM is a Los Angeles-based blogger who writes about body liberation, travel, plus-size fashion, relationships and more at queerfatfemme.

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