I had just climbed to the top of Caesarea’s amphitheater and snapped a selfie when I saw the notification on my phone’s screen.
“Don’t support apartheid!” it warned, referring to the notion that Israel is an apartheid state. I knew the message wasn’t a personal attack, but there something accusatory, and maybe even venomous about it.
And something all-too-familiar: I was very what you might call “anti-Israel” for a long time, after having been held at a land border crossing for several hours on account of a Lebanon stamp in my passport when attempting to enter Israel for the first time, in 2010, in spite of the fact that I am a citizen of practically the only country in the world that supports Israel.
My summarily terrible experience attempting to travel in the Jewish state – interrogation, paranoia and outright unkindness were rules, rather than exceptions – made me curious as to whether there was any truth in what some of my Arab friends were saying about Israel’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.
I spent the next several months doing extensive research into the conflict, most of which strengthened my evolving opinion on Israel: That it was a murderous rogue state, one with an insatiable appetite for cruelty, deceit and even ethnic cleansing. It seems I, mistreated as I had been, had gotten off easy.
And yet in the back of mind I knew, having been so shellshocked by the whole incident that I spent less than 24 hours in the country, that I hadn’t gotten an accurate impression of the “other side” of the story, that the only way to get it was to go back to Israel.
The thought of it terrified me. I mean, when I say I got “interrogated,” I mean getting stopped by someone at gunpoint at a popular tourist attraction and aggressively questioned as to why I was taking photos. I mean getting pulled off a bus and threatened with detention when I asked how far we were from our destination.
In no way did I expect – or want – to “like” Israel after my second trip there.
And yet, after spending nearly two weeks in Tel Aviv during the summer of 2011, I found myself not only (mostly) over the fear and tension that had defined my visit just a year before, but actually quite in love with Israel itself. (And, to be sure, some Israeli men – call me “pinkwashed” all you want!)
The fact is that Israel’s perspective on its conflict with its neighbors, and the methodology it uses to manage the conflict, are fucking whack. It seems that a measurable portion of Israeli society would just as soon murder all the Arabs, annex the Palestinian territories (and then some!) and call it a day.
Yet having now spent approximately as much combined time in Israel as I have Arab countries (about a month each), my view is that Israel’s model for society is vastly superior in every way. It’s mostly secular, largely egalitarian and driven by science, innovation and abundance.
Contrast this with the majority of Arab countries, hotbeds of dogma, mob-mentality and lack, where only the very richest of people – those who are unaffected by the complex structural deformities of their societies – are informed enough to have their own opinions on the conflict.
To put it another way, I would prefer a Middle East that was more like Israel and less like Libya; cities that were more like Tel Aviv and less like Cairo. And I would prefer if, rather than militarily forcing its neighbors to accept its right to exist, Israel somehow “monetized” the peace process.
In my mind, Israel should offer to engineer infrastructure, education and economic growth in exchange for an internationally recognized consensus of Arab governments not to promote Israel’s destruction or work with terrorist organizations, leaving everyone in the region (except, of course, terrorists) better off.
Then again, I’m a traveler, not a political expert. I’m a borderline atheist without a deity-approved stake in the game, not a Muslim or Jew with five millennia of hatred in my DNA. Logically speaking, every idea I could come up with, every perspective from which I can see the issue, has been discussed, dissected and dismissed.
It would be ridiculous for me to claim expertise – or anything more than compassionate concern, really – in this matter, but it is equally ridiculous for anyone to accuse me of somehow “supporting apartheid” by visiting Israel, and encouraging others to do the same.
I am not supporting apartheid by visiting Israel, anymore than I supported honor killings by visiting Egypt, forced labor and relocation by visiting China or seal slaughter by visiting Canada; I am not supporting Israel’s thuggish, inhumane behavior toward its neighbors, though I do happen to personally support its right to exist.
What I unconditionally support is my right to separate people from politics, to see both sides of an issue and to draw my own conclusions. My right and your right: Feel any way you want about Israel, Palestine and The Middle Eastern conflict but please, see both sides for yourself.
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