Hello dear friends, it’s been a long while—
On March 1, I submitted my History and Literature senior thesis!!! During spring break, a hundred of us embarked on the annual peer-led Israel Trek, which took us from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, into the West Bank and territories under the Palestinian Authority, to a hotel by the Sea of Galilee and muddy attempts to float on the Dead Sea, on an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) up close to the Syrian border and listening to an Israeli official explain military tactics from a gazebo overlooking the Gaza Strip. I then tested positive for Covid-19 the day after we got back to campus and was in isolation for a while—but life has since resumed without a hitch. It’s crazy that I only have a month left on this campus before graduation. Harvard, I’m gonna miss you like crazy.
Ofer, our handsome bearded Israeli guide, liked to say, We have to understand things from the belly button, not the heart, not the head. Especially in this place.
I was sitting on the steps of Al-Aqsa Mosque when he first uttered this, the cold stone pressing against my skirt. Behind me loomed the Dome of the Rock, round and gold and perfect, its mosaic walls—pale and midnight blue—guarding the rock from which Prophet Muhammad was believed to have ascended to heaven. The March air was crisp on the hill, dusted with the golden shimmer of the dome. Intuitively I held my breath as I circled the walls, blue sky glinting on blue marble. This was the holiest city in the world: Jerusalem.
We sat on centuries of civilizational sediment and layers of ruins above Temple Mount, a Jewish temple now buried deep within the ground under the Mosque. This spot had been conquered by the Romans, the Christians, the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians… (As I write this post, the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount has become the site of violent skirmishes over the past month due to the rare convergence of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter.)
But what had Ofer meant by understanding Israel from our belly button? I didn’t know.
From the first day in Jerusalem, tired sun shining on our faces, rain pattering on my hands as I scribbled down a prayer to slot into the battered stone of the Western Wall, I felt the desires and grief of entire peoples, jostling against one another, wailing for an audience, for reprieve, for resolution.
In a homely, pastel-hued living room, the air full of cinnamon and tea, our other tour guide’s diminutive mother spoke of being a settler in the West Bank—of “flowering the desert,” of stopping the flow of terrorism by building on lands occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, of her right to live on these disputed lands. I don’t have anywhere all over the world to live other than Israel, the mother said, harsh sunlight powdering her white hair.
What is the inner life of Israel? What is its moral center? Israel demands that we constantly hold contradictions in our minds. In the same day we visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) and Palestine (Bethlehem, West Bank). Yad Vashem, which literally means “a memorial and a name,” is a prism-like ark sunk into the slope of Mount Herzl (Israel’s national cemetery where fallen soldiers and past presidents are buried.) The museum was haunting and moving, the choreographed path through dark galleries and the illuminated central spine ending in the Hall of Names, where six hundred faces of Holocaust victims gazed down at the dark pool of water below—commemorating those whose names will never be known.
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man…we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name…— Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944
The faces weighed on my mind as we walked through Palestinian territories that afternoon, which was less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Bethlehem reminded me of rural China’s smaller towns in the early 2000s, with numerous copycat Starbucks shops (Stars & Bucks! Squarebucks!) and children selling gum on the streets. Poorer, less developed. Fenced by an eight-meter tall concrete wall which separates Israel and the West Bank and regulates the entry of Palestinians. What else to call the Wall apart from Apartheid? How to win in an endless competition of suffering, the scale weighed down by death tolls and traumas on both sides? Later in the week, when we drove through the West Bank, armed guards came onto our bus at the checkpoint, faces grim under the fluorescent glare but quietly moving down the aisle. Behind me, most American friends slept on, undisturbed.
Tel is a Hebrew word. It means a hill with ruins covered inside its layers. Imagine layer upon layer upon layer of civilizations, religions, empires, kingdoms, nation-states, and villages piling atop one another until a mound is formed. That’s Israel.
However much one side would like to purge a part of history to stake their own claims, this land is a palimpsest of national aspirations, wars, partition plans and international declarations, laws and religious edicts, and intimate memories of home—all feeding conflicting imaginations through the umbilical cord. The question of Israel is more than one of the mind or the heart, it’s existential. Perhaps to even begin understanding Israel means sifting through its multi-directional roots in the soil, its cracks and convulsions, the nutrients that give it life.