Hope in the Holy Land

by Artoor Minas

        There is something unique in the air when wandering around the Holy Land that is unexplainable. Perhaps it is the wide array of kabobs, falafels and spices. Maybe it is the seemingly endless lineup of Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites or it could very well be the constant existential threat of war that exists in this part of the world. Whichever it may be, traveling in the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories proved to be one of the most fascinating travel experiences one could have.

        Israel by size is smaller than the small Central American country Belize. Yet the depth and number of sites to see in the Holy Land are never-ending. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, The Dead Sea, Haifa, ancient port cities of Akko and Jaffa, The Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron are just a few of the many sites and cities to visit. Couple this with my intense curiosity for understanding the nature of the Israel-Palestinian conflict; I couldn’t resist my desire to see the Holy Land for myself.      

        This past summer I had the privilege to experience the Holy Land through our Israel study abroad program. After just spending a few hours in Israel, there was little doubt that the energy was different and immediately took an interest in wandering into any area which was accessible to me and to build bridges with as many locals, Arab or Jewish as I possibly could to connect with the people and to achieve greater awareness of the conflict.

       Maybe the most interesting aspect of Israel was the radically different ways in which the people would view the world. Walking 10 minutes from the mostly Jewish area of West Jerusalem to the mostly Arab area of East Jerusalem for example almost seemed as if I was crossing into another world of perspective. Discussing politics, something both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs always loved to do was when this became most obvious. Identifying myself an ethnic Persian-Armenian, the Arabs loved speaking highly of Iran’s stance on Israel, whereas Israelis were quick to condemn the Iranian leadership. Despite the various depths of the conflict, both groups were always quick to welcome and embrace me as one of their own.

        I learned much from traveling within Israel and the West Bank. One thing I learned is the people’s deep desire to live in peace side by side. Never was this more emphasized than with the ordinary merchant, falafel guru, taxi driver and college student in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This especially came to light while traveling in the West Bank city of Jenin, where I found the “Freedom Theatre.” The theatre was founded by an Israeli Jewish woman who desired to give Palestinian youth something positive to strive for, and a means to express themselves creatively through art rather than through violence. Only as recently as 2002 was the city of Jenin the site of heavy violence during the Second Intifada (Palestinian Uprising) and of militant activity.

          I was greeted with the typical Arab greeting upon entering the Freedom Theatre. “Welcome!” Moreover, the Freedom Theatre was technologically advanced, filled with a movie theatre and computers with high speed internet access. All those present at the theatre welcomed me with smiles even though their theatre happened to be located in the middle of Jenin’s Refugee Camp populated with dislodged Palestinians from all across the Holy Land. Outside the theatre was a recovering war zone, whereas inside the theatre was a safe haven for the creation of art and theatricals. I was politely greeted by a well spoken and articulate Palestinian man whose goal it was in assisting in the development of the Freedom Theatre. I was given a personal tour of the large theatres, briefly watched the production and rehearsal of a new play set to be performed for their community in the coming weeks and watch a short film about the founding of the Freedom Theatre. The film showed local youths describing their upbringing, growing up in a community in which almost every child in Jenin Refugee Camp had witnessed actual or threatened death and telling their story of previously desiring to fight against the occupation and ultimately earning the title of martyr only to be altered by the creation of the Freedom Theatre.

        Since the creation of the theatre, the community youth use art and theatre as a method to express themselves and as a method to cope with the occupation and ongoing conflict. Most importantly, the Freedom Theatre, they explained have allowed them to not hate the State of Israel or their Jewish neighbors, but instead has injected a spirit of hope for a new generation of Palestinian Arabs looking toward a more peaceful co-existing future.

       I have always believed that there is hope for peaceful co-existence in this world and ironically enough, it took spending the summer in the always conflicted Holy Land to affirm that belief.