Why did you pick this program?
I finished a solo backpacking trip through South America that left a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew when I left Colombia that I would never again throw on a backpack and march through endless countries just to say I'd been there. It felt like a human zoo when I'd walk through the streets of Quito or Cuzco, all the poverty swimming around and me as a tourist trying to experience something authentic. Operation Groundswell caught my eye because it was a volunteer experience geared towards backpackers.
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?
We often tend to forget that life is a very fleeting thing. That every day could be our last. So why not throw all caution aside? Most of my friends are concerned with paying off student debts or car payments, and that's fine. But I can't stand it when people say they "wish they could travel like you do" because they can.
Travel just has to be a priority. I've been financially independent for nearly ten years now and that hasn't stopped me. This year alone I spent six months traveling in Israel and Palestine, northern Europe, and all over the United States... It wasn't all easy or fun, but I found it overall far more rewarding than any experience I've ever had.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
The program, Behind the Headlines, in Israel and Palestine was unique to Operation Groundswell in that it was less physical work than, say, Ghana, where you're building hospitals or schools. It was more about meeting people on both sides of the conflict and experiencing what life is like in the segregated society Israel is. More than anything, you're going to need an open mind.
What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?
I got the chance to attend a Palestinian wedding with fellow OGers, but it got real interesting when I realized the friends I had come with were women and we were going to be separated for the entirety of the ceremony.
No booze at Palestinian weddings either, just lots of coffee and cigarettes and smiles and dancing. Me with my minimal Arabic just grinning foolishly and that awkward moment when, atop the groom's shoulders, the music stops and the DJ calls in his equally minimal English, "my friend! Where you come from?"
Pause. Swallow. "Ah-America!" and not wanting to be from anywhere at that moment and the wave of silence in the dirt street of a small West Bank village. The pause passing and everyone around me yelling ebulliently and we all continue the dance.
One man, afterwards, pulls me aside and explains this was one of the few moments in their culture where they could be happy. That life was very difficult and did I see? Me taking a cigarette from his leathery long fingers and rheumy eyes, listening to him tell me in an earnest and stern voice that life must be enjoyed at some point, even in the hell that Palestine is.
That's Israel to me. That's Palestine. It's some unspoken and prehistoric pain that a wistful stare can stir in the bowels of the stranger, the foreigner that I was.
So what's going on over there? What did you learn? Who is on the "right side" of the conflict?
These are the questions I get asked the most and they are nearly impossible to answer.
I would begin by saying that anyone who speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like they have it figured out should not be trusted. And of the myriad debates I heard from both sides this is often the case: one side full of certainty and trying to swing their opinion around like it's an axiom or something inherently valid...
The truth is that this is not a black and white subject and there is no good versus evil. Is Israel the oppressor? Does it violate international law and commit heinous crimes against an entire ethnicity?
Well, yes, but the Israelis that became my friends were simply born in Israel by chance, and they found the politics of their nation as blasphemous to humanity and misrepresentative of their own political beliefs as I find of my own government here in the United States.
And what about the Palestinians, don't they resort to terrorist attacks that include suicide bombings and random murders that invoke fear in the hearts of the average and innocent Israeli citizen? Well, of course but they are a fraction, a minority. And there are larger questions that arise with these acts like what sort of oppression must one face to resort to such acts of violence? What is poverty like? What does it feel like to have a hopeless childhood? Some of my Palestinian friends had violent pasts. The truly wise ones had learned nothing is harder than loving your enemy, than forgiving those who despise you.
And, finally, the question I was asked most while there: "why did you come to Israel/Palestine?"
I think if this conflict can be resolved then it will serve as some blueprint for the resolution of all conflicts. This conflict is so complex that if I live to see a day where there is peace in Jerusalem then I will truly have hope for the future of humanity. For now, that day seems distant or bleak, but there are still prospects of hope.