For three weeks this past May, I participated in a joint Mennonite Central Committee/Mennonite Church Eastern Canada learning tour for young adults to Israel/Palestine. Called Yella, the program means “let’s go” in Hebrew and Arabic.
Although I had a limited knowledge of the Middle East’s religious and political significance, I knew that going and experiencing the Holy Land first hand would help me to understand its complexities. My reading prior to the trip taught me that the region is filled with thousands of years of history, political turmoil and religious strife that even so-called experts have a tough time grasping. Travelling in the region and experiencing these issues up close and personal gave me a new perspective from which to view and understand its important questions.
I expected to be fearful of the social and political tension between the diverse peoples of the region and the violence that all too often comes as a consequence. The perception of the Middle East is that it is a scary place and that travellers should visit with extreme caution. It is hard to ignore the news stories about suicide bombings, air strikes and violent protests; and before the trip it was definitely in the back of my mind.
However, the experiences I had proved this expectation wrong. Yes, there is violence, but typically this occurs in the same areas, leaving much of county safe for travellers. Even the day spent in Hebron, which was the tensest situation we encountered, I never feared for my life. Some of the best experiences I had were in the West Bank staying with a Palestinian host family, walking the streets of Arab neighbourhoods and hiking the Jesus’ Trail in the countryside.
I learned and experienced much more than I anticipated. There are three main thoughts I took away from the trip:
• This was not a vacation. Vacationing is a time when you relax, sleep in, eat well and shut yourself off from the rest of the world. Travelling—which we did—is an adventure, going places to learn, experience new things and meet new people.
• Religion is not always used for positive purposes. The extremes on all sides of the conflict use religion to advance their political agendas at the expense of other people and at the expense of the teachings in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an.
• The negative things we hear on the news about Israel/Palestine are committed by a small fraction of the population. Not every Palestinian supports Hamas and not every Jew is a “settler.” We met amazing people everyday who want nothing more than to have a peaceful end to the conflict.
This was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had, and I would strongly encourage others, young and old, to travel to Israel/Palestine. It is truly an amazing place.