“When you live in this part of the world you have to be optimistic.”
That’s what our tour guide said to a group of eager college students as we drove through the streets of Jerusalem. The same streets that 366 days prior were filled with smoke and chaos as Hamas fired rockets into the Old City on Jerusalem Day.
Unlike the conflict of the year prior, the stone streets of the Old City swarmed with life as Jerusalem prepared to greet a new day. The city buzzed with activity as the Middle Eastern sun glowed across the skyline.
As we continued to explore Israel, a long bus ride from the desert turned into blasting Israeli music on the bus. The music was different and loud, and I couldn’t tell you what a single song was about but still, I loved it. Scenes of Israel rolled by, and the music continued to play. We approached a Palestinian checkpoint, where our guide promptly turned the music down. An exchange at the border and we were cleared. Our guide resumed his sampling of Israeli music, and the checkpoint shrank behind us.
I laughed to myself as the volume increased again. This was Israel. Laughing, celebration, music, and joy amid ever-present conflict.
That’s what struck me about this land. No matter how prevailing the conflict, you were never far from a celebration.
Israel’s people will worship no matter how jammed the security line is at the Western Wall. Children still play outside, even if they must play in bomb shelter playgrounds. Amid existential wars and conflict, the people still strive toward innovation and progress. No matter how large the impending threat, the people of Israel continue to celebrate.
Israel is loud. The streets of the Shuk are filled with dancing, and music pours from restaurants in the Jewish quarter. Anywhere you find a group of Israeli children is sure to be filled with running and shrieking. Sometimes it feels like people don’t talk to each other—they yell. The noise level might bother some people but every shout and shriek revolts against a conflict that attempts to silence the other side.
Much conflict fills this land but still, every Friday evening the streets are quiet. Rest fills the air as Shabbat settles in. I was blessed to experience this while in Israel. After an eye-opening, educational, and honestly, heavy, day learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I entered a small home in Jerusalem to celebrate Shabbat with a local Jewish family. We walked into the house and the room was illuminated. With the conflict still fresh on my mind, our host began to fill the table with food. And more food. And more food. Challah, Salmon, Hummus, Pita bread, and soup dotted the table. Our host, Nathaniel, was more generous than our stomachs could handle, and I laughed as another dish was placed before us. He told us story after story until we couldn’t tell where one story began and another ended. I was in a trance. The atmosphere was filled with history, peace, and life.
Every time Israel is filled with life, the death that seeks to penetrate the land becomes quieter. Despite the wounds of Israel’s past and the scars of its history, there is a culture of celebration. It is a people who no matter how hectic the week before, will always make time for rest and reflection—time to breathe.
As I ate at the table with Nathaniel, his three energetic children, and a group of Passages participants I had just shared so much life experience with, the images of the border wall in Bethlehem and the words of an angry yet hopeful Palestinian rang in my mind. Now, on the opposite side of the border wall and conflict, I realized this was a moment for hope.
When I arrived in Israel, I never expected to be moved by something like conflict.
When the plane’s wheels jolted against the tarmac of the Ben Gurion Airport, I expected to be moved by Israel. I expected to be moved by the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but I never expected to be moved by two groups of people endlessly at odds with one another.
Even more surprising, I never expected to see hope amidst this conflict.
10 days later when I returned to the Ben Gurion airport and left Israel, I was not only moved but wrecked. If I ever questioned if hope and grief could exist simultaneously now I knew because I had experienced the land of Israel – a place where grief dots the landscape but somehow, hope is evident nonetheless.
When you watch the news and study the tragic history of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, it can seem like hope is lost. From a distance, Israel is without hope. But if you dare to look close enough you can see it.
Hope is in the sunflowers that dot the road to the Gaza border and in the smiles of IDF soldiers sharing lunch with friends. It’s in the gentle breeze atop the Golan Heights and the face of a Palestinian father wishing better for his children.
When the Jerusalem sun rises and strikes its fiery red against the Old City and Israel starts a new day – there is hope. No matter how dark the night before, Israel rises, seizes the day ahead, and wrings out each drop of life and innovation.
Israel does not wallow in its history but rises and dusts off its hands in preparation for a better tomorrow. A tomorrow filled with peace between neighbors. A tomorrow filled with hope.
In Israel, I learned about the Bible and history and gathered a handful of experiences I’ll never forget. I floated in the Dead Sea, trekked through Hezekiah’s tunnel, and overlooked the Negev from Masada. I met a lot of beautiful people and shared some beautiful conversations I’ll never forget. But beyond that, I learned that amidst all the conflict and brokenness in this land, there is hope.
From the lenses of the news, television, and the tragic history of Israel and Palestine, this land is without hope. But I was blessed to see a different Israel. An Israel where a determination is reflected in the eyes of its people. An Israel where people embrace rest and celebration and seek to clean up the rubble of a decades-long conflict.
I was blessed to see an Israel full of strength, an Israel full of life, and most of all, an Israel full of hope.