After welcoming a Palestinian - Israeli group in England in the past now at the end of June there was the great opportunity for Europeans to go on a return exchange trip. So the British group – which was actually formed of British, German and Austrian nationalities – arrived on Friday 28th at Tel Aviv Airport before going to Jerusalem.
To offer a brief but substantial insight in our project I would like to highlight only a few but outstanding events surrogating detailed but basic facts, in fact I can’t really remember all the names of restaurants we went to anyway. First, there was indeed a very new experience to Europeans right at the beginning when going through the remarkably strict border control. Quite different to the EU Schengen free movement zone, admittedly. We had to wait for almost two hours at the airport while proving that our group truly doesn’t hide suspicious personalities. However our mood improved rapidly when we entered the impressive historic city of Jerusalem, probably comparable to Rome in terms of size and importance of the historic sights. As there were many Christians in our group, the Holy Sepulchre naturally attracted us. Citing quotes of our group members, one of them said, she appreciated the fact that a Palestinian Muslim family holds the key to the church as symbol of balance between Christian confessions and inter-religious dialogue. Another one said, she liked the welcoming and non-restricted atmosphere of the church. Our friendly Palestinian guide who studies Theology in Durham, UK then led us to the Western Wall respectfully entering the Jewish holy site with a current Shabbat service in the building nearby. Soon, we left the old city then again before heading to Beyt Jala, Palestine not far from Jerusalem.
Undoubtedly, our house in Beyt Jala where we would stay for five days was extremely comfortable. The rooms, the garden seats and lots of space were all we needed to concentrate on our Workshops. Yes, Workshops. Reflection and discussion were actually the goal of that trip, so the leaders Clive and Alan prepared tasks to become aware of cultural and social stereotypes but also to think politically, for example: “What requires a country to work properly?”. The Austrian and German group colleagues added another show about roles in a fictional culture likely to mislead neutral observers pointing out that the first impression of people’s behaviour is not necessarily accurate. Nevertheless, we also wanted to have a good time together and cultivate our team spirit therefore there were cultural evenings on the timetable every day. Each part of the group came up with ideas for one of these evenings and British games and Austrian dancing were quite popular. Moreover, during our stay in Beyt Jala we had the opportunity to go both to Bethlehem. When we saw the wall and the Banksy hotel in Bethlehem, my German colleague called it “eye-opening” to the at least partially desolate situation of a country shaked by an incredibly persistent conflict where human suffering has already outweighed any political wins many many years ago.
Probably the best way describing our experiences is that we went to a place where heaven and hell are close to each other. Although hardly anybody wouldn’t be excited by the beauty and complexity of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultural, religious and architectural heritage in Jerusalem it takes no longer than 20 minutes to go outside the city to meet people likely to be under the least free of all over the world. It is hard for people who grew up in the European Union to imagine really living in an occupied zone without legal rights and citizenship where often the only way to work is crossing the border wall everyday at overcrowded checkpoints, often being exposed to the arbitrariness of army soldiers. Therefore, finally the vast majority of the Youth Exchange group members left the country after one week with mixed feelings. Having had a great group experience with well-planned and popular activities but otherwise being confronted with such a difficult and intricate conflict between two nations allows lots of space for further reflection, discussion and maybe also engagement in the peace process.
(Author: J., a Participant)
Which expectations and pictures did they have in mind when they arrived and which impressions did they leave with? Find out more about their thoughts:
We asked them…
What did you expect from this trip?
To get to know the detailed information about the conflict that is going, and maybe also some possible solutions for that.
Just to see how it really is, because the media portrays it in a different way. In the media I had the impression that they don’t really show you both sides.
And of course to get to know new friends and having fun!
One thing everybody said when I told I’m going to Israel – oh you’re going to Tel Aviv, that’s a really cool party scene, isn’t it!
What was the most surprising experience you had?
I really didn’t expect that there is such a huge wall. I felt a bit anxious seeing that. It reminded me of stories on the Austrian-German story…not a good feeling. I mean there are cool paintings on the wall, but it’s not about that.
When I visited Bethlehem. The wall was very scary. And also that someone got shot yesterday in Tel Aviv.
What surprised me is – I don’t wanna talk about politics, but people have the same feelings, I can see that people want change, they wanna take action but they don’t wanna risk their families, they could get killed.
On certain days some people were not allowed to enter certain places – so some of us had to stay outside!
Although it is going on a lot it's quite calm, we didn’t witness any violence.
Not all Israelis and Palestinians hate each other like I thought. They are here with us as part of the group and they like each other, we are partying with each other, we are dancing together.
I felt really safe.
Could you summarize this trip in 3 words or one sentence?
This was the best experience for me to know about the culture and to know myself better, because if you don’t change yourself, you can’t change anything.
I would recommend it to others because of learning so many things first hand...you could also read the stories but you could never really experience what we have experienced, getting to know all these people, their sights, the conflict as well – I would never have seen any videos on that and learned the same things.