See you next year in Jerusalem!

I am currently sitting near my boarding gate at the overcrowded TLV Airport struggling to ignore mouth-watering but ridiculously marked-up souvenirs — still in disbelief that this whirlwind trip has come to an end.

After almost a week of learning about Israel’s businesses and politics, we spent our last couple of days doing what tourists do best – we took our time for leisure! Thus we exited Jerusalem and made our first stop to Masada in the Judean Desert before cheerily floating on the Dead Sea.

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Floating on the Dead Sea after a glorious mud-bath. Bucket list, checked!

The 2,000-year old Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an ancient fortress built in the time of King Herod (yes, if you were well-versed in the New Testament, he was the Judean King at the time of Jesus’ birth). It also bore witness to the first Jewish – Roman War, which ended with the defeat of the Jewish rebels in 73 AD.

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Our rock-star guide, Ori, explaining Israel’s topography in Masada

Driving through the Judean Desert, we also observed Israel’s desert agriculture, where drip irrigation technique has allowed for scarce water resources to be used at extreme limits to grow crops. The salty and mineral-filled water from around the area was found to be useful for crops such as cherry tomatoes and dates, allegedly making them 2-3x sweeter than the regular fruit.

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Agriculture in the Judean Desert *mind-blown*

Returning to Tel Aviv, it is hard to deny that the Zionist movement has managed to provide a safe and prosperous homeland for the Jewish community after thousands of years of persecution.  Hanging out at Jaffa’s patio cafés or playing matkot on the beaches of Tel Aviv, one forgets that Israel is smacked right in the Middle East. This place could have been any towns in Southern Europe or the West Coast — and in my humble opinion, only better! The people are friendly and vigorously intelligent, they are assertive with no pretension; the weather is beautiful and the dress-code is always casual; the food comes only with the best ingredients and every meal can turn into a festive party with the first call of an “Arak?!” – all these, while you are constantly surrounded by romantic, ancient monuments of religious and cultural struggles.

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Tel Aviv, seen from Jaffa
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The charming Artists’ Quarter in Jaffa, home to many art galleries

Witnessing what the Israelis have achieved as a people and a nation, it is almost impossible to deny the Jewish land’s existence and right to exist. I am sure the Israeli Defense Forces work very hard in the background to ensure a normal day-by-day activity for its citizens; there were no x-ray machines on the entrance of hotels, no army personnel on the corner of the streets (unlike what a foreigner would have expected in a “war-zone”). In the words of Amir, our Israeli student-organizer, “Oh yeah, the security is everywhere, you just don’t see them.”

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It is customary to bring flowers home for Shabbat. We passed by a synagogue in Old Jaffa and found this kind gentleman, who gave one stem of daisy each to the ladies.

And yet, as our bus was preparing to enter Tel Aviv, I could not shake the picture of Israel’s “barrier” walls on the West Bank – a man-made construction separating Israel’s territorial lands to that of the Palestinian’s. A widely popular Palestinian campaign a couple years ago highlighted that the wall has many parallels to an apartheid regime: the concrete wall (some reaching 8m, about twice the height of the Berlin Wall) created enclosed ghettoes in Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem and Hebron, isolating Palestinians from cattle rearing – the main source of livelihood in the area. Israel, as a response, noted that the erection of the wall has managed to significantly reduce violence and terrorism.

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Israel’s barrier walls on the West Bank

As we were touring the country, Reuters and Peace Now Israel (a liberal NGO campaigning for a two-state resolution) reported that the Israeli government had signed a statement in which 580 acres of land south of Jericho, another Palestinian city, is now declared an Israeli government’s property. The declaration, which according to Peace Now is a de-facto confiscation of Palestinian lands, adds fuel to the fire after recent attacks in Jaffa, sending conflicting signals to the Palestinian (as well as the Israelis) that the government has little intention to work toward peace and two states. Soon after this event, further violence erupted as a Palestinian nationalist attacked two civilians on the West Bank, highlighting a deteriorating security situation… One can only wonder why.

But what really makes and justifies a nation’s rights to exist? What defines colonization or recapture of your rights to the land? Is it a shared culture, religion, ethnicity or a shared history? And for the latter, in which time period? As Israel battles the fact that its Arab-Muslims and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations will comprise half of its population within one generation, the question becomes increasingly critical to answer.

During his farewell note, our delightful Israeli tour guide, Ori Abramson, cheered, “See you next year in Jerusalem!”

Apparently even if you live all your life in Jerusalem, you will still say this Jewish greeting to each other. And this refers to two things: one, it refers to Jerusalem that brings peace to the entire world (through the arrival of Moshiach/Messiah) and two, the inflection of how you pronounce next year in Hebrew (“Haba’ah”) can imply the present time. In a sense, it is a wishful parting note for peace today and every day; and despite its Jewish roots, the meaning echoes across religions and borders.

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See you next year in Jerusalem!

Let’s face it, the ability to travel is a privilege awarded to only a small percentage of the world’s population — even more so a trip in an academic umbrella like Chazen’s, where you are actively encouraged to learn and inquire, rectifying your assumptions and preconceived notions, no questions barred. To be fair, I have more questions than I am capable to answer even more after the trip. That only shows how complex the world surrounding  us is and  how important it is to correct our prejudices. I am sure every student who traveled together during this trip has different takeaways than mine, but I am confident that each one of us has gained more tolerance to (and respect) to those who hold different opinions. Such is the effect of 5,000 years of history on you.

My generation grew up during the Balkan conflicts as well as the Oslo Accord; and today, we are still debating about the Syrian war and the appropriateness of Turkey’s “trade” with the EU over the treatment of refugees. The farewell greeting echoes even more pronounced today than ever, so I do hope to see you next year in Jerusalem!

Aphrodita R. Kasih, Class of 2016

Chazen Israel Spring 2016, Group A

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