Through an unexpected confluence of circumstances, I found myself -- along with my spouse and two young children--in Tel Aviv as Israel’s military action in Gaza escalated. Israel’s bombing campaign began as we were in Paris, already en route to Israel for me to present in Tel Aviv University Buchmann Faculty of Law’s environmental workshop. We almost decided to cancel the rest of our trip due to the conflict. Ultimately, though, we chose to proceed, but to be cautious about where we spent our time.
Initially, if we did not read the news reports each night, we would have had no idea that the distance from Tel Aviv to the Hamas rockets and Israeli bombs was barely more than the distance from our home in Lexington, Virginia, to the hospital we recently drove to while I was in labor (or, as my husband has reflected in his posts on the subject, the distance from Tel Aviv to Gaza is the same as from Eugene to Corvallis, Oregon, or from Brentwood to Costa Mesa, California). Life seemed utterly normal in Tel Aviv as restaurants and nightclubs buzzed all around us. It was hard for us to reconcile the reality of armed conflict so nearby with the tranquility we observed.
Our modified itinerary included only Tel Aviv, a limited trip to Jerusalem (one that did not get near any potential flashpoints), and a small village near Haifa. As a result, throughout our trip, we saw no evidence of either heightened security or protests except online. The only checkpoints we encountered, on roads that led into the West Bank, seemed routine, as did airport security.
With the start of the ground campaign in the middle of our trip, our experience of the immediacy of conflict changed only slightly. Jewish people we knew had family members who anticipated serving on the front lines, and an Arab-owned restaurant we dined at in Northern Israel was a little quieter than usual. But life on the street seemed virtually unchanged in Tel Aviv. One would have to know the personal stories and interconnections to have a sense of how people were experiencing the conflict. Its proximity, the heightened tensions, and the human casualties were rarely apparent outside of isolated protests and personal encounters.
Clearly, if we sought out the conflict zones (something we were loathe to do with two small children in our care), the human impacts and military presence would be apparent. And people were likely thinking and feeling a great deal more about this and many other things than one can see in a surface encounter. However, it was hard to reconcile the tranquility we were experiencing with the news reports that caused a bevy of concerned emails from friends and family who knew we were there. Other foreigners we spent time with during our time in Israel reported similar cognitive dissonance as this theme came up in conversation after conversation.
These feelings in turn have brought me back to themes of sameness and otherness that have dominated my civil and human rights work over the years, as well as the geography literature exploring the differences between physical and social space. When working on environmental and social justice issues, I learned the importance of acknowledging my whiteness and what I don’t understand when trying to be an effective ally to communities of color. When monitoring human rights in Hong Kong, I was always aware of the safety that my race and nationality brought me. When interviewing human and civil rights victims, I tried to provide a safe, emphathic space, but knew that I could not fully understand their experience of atrocity. And yet all of this work is foundationally about recognizing the interconnection that all humans share and the rights that they have regardless of their geography.
And so, I found myself in Tel Aviv to talk about climate change when a conflict I cared about was simultaneously proximate and distant physically, emotionally, socially, and legally. I struggled with how I should react, if I could be helpful, and how to be a responsible parent. As I now sit at my desk in Lexington, Virginia, far away physically from this conflict with an ever-growing human toll ,and aware of the many difficulties that humans face around the planet as 2009 begins, I hope that the coming year brings more peace and less suffering and that we each can play a small constructive role in such forward movement.