The two girls I’m volunteering with and I have gotten very close in a short time. We eat together, sleep in the same house, and bond from the harrowing experience of trying to wrangle small children. One of the girls, H, is of Greek origin, and the other, T, is Palestinian. We all grew up in the US. We had three days off last weekend, so we rented a car and set off traveling to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights. Thanks to our American passports and the Israeli license plate that took three Arab car rental agencies to find, we breezed through the checkpoint to get out of the West Bank. The landscape was immediately greener and more lush, cyprus trees lining the highway.
The trip would have been overwhelming enough by itself – the natural beauty of the Galilee and the Golan Heights was stunning. But seeing the trip through T’s eyes added a whole other element. Though she was legally allowed to travel in Israel because she has an American passport, rather than a Palestinian ID (those with Palestinian IDs need to acquire permits to leave the West Bank, which are issued sparsely and erratically), she was anxious about how she would be treated as a recognizable Palestinian in Israel. She was very nervous about couch surfing with a Jewish Israeli woman. But at the same time, she was overwhelmed with happiness to simply be there. As H and I would pore over our maps and guidebooks, trying to decide what sight to see or route to take, T would say she didn’t care, she was just happy to see the land and breathe the air that’s been denied her and her family.
We were surprised by what an Arab feel the places we visited had. Driving up the highway, domes and minarets dotted the hilltops. Attendants at gas stations with signs in Hebrew would speak in Arabic amongst themselves. We ran into a few Jewish Israelis, but many more Arab Israelis, who were always friendly and generous. They were especially happy to chat with T about her first time visiting her homeland. We swam in the Sea of Galilee, visited churches around it in various places Jesus performed miracles, and went hiking in the Golan Heights, climbing down into a gorge where a waterfall fed into a clear, deep pool. It was surreal to be swimming in this beautiful, hidden location with other carefree tourists, after getting there by following a map marking off where there still were firing zones, and taking heed of our guidebook’s warning that the Golan still has minefields here and there.
The city of Nazareth was fun to explore, and being the largest Arab city in Israel, it wasn’t surprising that there were few Jewish Israelis around. We visited more churches, including a Roman Catholic church and a Greek Orthodox church a few blocks away from each other, both claiming to stand on the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary. It turned out we only saw the woman whose apartment we were staying at while we were leaving in the morning to head back to Jalazone, so we would never know how she would have reacted to T. T said that she some got dirty looks from Jewish Israelis while hiking once they realized she was Palestinian, which angered her, but she also felt pride that they recognized her as Palestinian. When we came back to Jalazone, the family we live above was hungry for details, wishing they could go themselves, though the possibility is close to nil. The trip was fantastic, but it provided constant reminders of my own privilege. I am able to move freely without question or suspicion on the basis of my blond hair, light skin, and American passport, while the people I came here to serve are denied the same right.