A Jew comes home
(The author has chosen to change their name and the names of the individuals mentioned in this piece. The views of this article are not representative of the views of The Chronicle.)
Our bus ride was long and largely unmemorable as we drove past small towns and an ever-increasing amount of sand. Most of my fellow passengers, a collection of 21- and 22-year-olds, were sound asleep as we made our way south toward the Negev, the Israeli desert, on one of our last days on Birthright. Everything seemed rather boring until I spotted a bleak, immovable object coming into view.
It was the wall.
Stretching down the length of the highway, the concrete structure was ominous. I was taken aback by how big it really was. I could see houses and towns peeking out from behind the wall; so close, but seemingly a world apart. A bleak, gloomy feeling washed over me as I examined it longer and longer.
Then I realized, I wasn’t the only one paying attention.
Slowly, one by one, the others on the bus woke up. Each person waking begot another, as everyone started to realize what they were looking at. The realization of where we were acted like a domino effect, disturbing what was just a peaceful nap a few moments ago. Some people started taking pictures. Others looked nervously toward the front of the bus, presumably searching for our tour director, Isaac. Chatter started to consume our vehicle until Isaac noticed the commotion and got on the bus’s microphone. He started explaining the backstory of the wall – how the Israeli government constructed it to stop terrorists from crossing over from the West Bank into Israel.
“Once it was constructed, it pretty much stopped terrorists from crossing over, like, 100 percent,” he said. “I personally don’t like the wall, I think it’s a kind of scar on the land.”
Eventually, as we continued down the highway, the wall still in view, the bus slowed down and turned. We started passing small buildings, some looking only half built, marked by Israeli flags, as more chatter started to swarm inside the bus.
“Is this where we’re staying?” someone asked.
“Yes, this is where we’re staying,” Isaac replied.
The atmosphere instantly changed, the tension turning to semi-panic. “I don’t like this,” another person shouted. “Aren’t we a little too close to the wall?” Not everyone was panicked, but chatter nonetheless flourished further until Isaac got back on the microphone to try and calm the bus down.
“Everyone,” he said, “you are totally safe.”
The kids around me didn’t believe him.
With a bit less sympathy, Isaac took the mic again. “Guys, there are good people who live in the West Bank, OK? It’s not like every community there is dangerous.” This was about the closest Isaac got to collectively slapping our group in the face and telling us, ‘Hey, you stupid Americans, not everyone in the West Bank is a terrorist.’
This kind of tension was largely an anomaly for my Birthright companions. Our journey had been spread out far and wide, from the mystic peaks of Tzfat in the north, to the nightclubs and beaches of Tel Aviv, to the awe of Shabbat in Jerusalem. “Next year in Jerusalem” became “Welcome to Jerusalem,” a phrase Jews have been waiting thousands of years to say. We became another generation of Jews to finally hear those words. The group on my trip was rowdy and happy. The people we met were proud and fun. The places we visited were interesting and ancient. The Jews had come home.
This is why the stark contrast between those days of happiness and approximately 15 minutes of collective anxiety on a bus was so unforgiving to the rest of my Birthright peers. We were all there to have fun, right?
If you’re not paying attention, yes. However, sometimes fate forces you to pay attention. Sometimes you can’t hide from what’s been happening all along. Sometimes you can’t just look away from the reality of what’s sitting on the side of the road.
Sometimes you can’t forget what it means to be human. I never did, and after my time in the Middle East, I never intend to.