Story and photos by Gordon Friedman

Design by Nai Saephanh

Thick gray moisture hugged the Jerusalem Forest hills for as long as the sun would let it on the cold December morning I arrived at Mount Herzl. The air was crisp and reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, although I was in Israel 6,714 miles away from home. Except for birds and rustling leaves, all was quiet as I walked through Mount Herzl Cemetery’s front gates. The soldiers traveling with us, normally jovial and relaxed, tucked in their shirts, wore their caps as a sign of respect, and walked with purpose along the pathways between graves.

Passing the tombs of famous Israelis such as Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Theodor Herzl—the founder of modern Zionism—I saw rows of graves housing Israel’s war dead. Symbolically alive with shrubs and flowers, hundreds of raised planters were marked with headstones bearing the name and rank of the soldier enclosed within. The solemnity of this place reminded me that I came to Israel for more than a vacation.

In a way, it’s a fortunate coincidence that I visited Israel at all. The application for the ten-day Taglit-Birthright Israel discovery program had been filtered into my email’s spam folder. For me, Israel had always seemed an enigmatic country—a place home to a myriad of cultures, enshrined in ancient world history, and watched with scrutiny by world media. I had thought of Israel as a divided place, where coexistence wasn’t possible. Anytime I turned on the TV, it seemed every story about Israel detailed the brutality or hopelessness of a country at war with its neighbors. I had never understood it—the fighting seemed purposeless. But despite that, a desire to visit had always been there. My great-grandmother was born in what was then British Palestine; my mother studied in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and I strongly identified as Jewish. Israel seemed like the right place to learn more about my Jewish heritage and identity. The email’s subject line read “Free trip to Israel,” and as fate would have it, I opened the message, applied, and was accepted to tour Israel with 40 other American Jews.

In the morning fog, Rachel, our Taglit guide, led our group to a stone planter marked with a headstone and a simple inscription revealing the deceased’s name, rank, and place of death. Stopping before the grave, Rachel explained that so many Israelis had been killed in war that every person in the country has a number representing how many friends or family members were interred at Mount Herzl. Her number was two. This grave was one of them: It belonged to Nir Cohen, a friend who had been killed when a rocket struck his tank. Quiet settled over the group as Rachel placed a pebble on Nir’s headstone, a Jewish gesture of respect for the dead. In that moment I felt the true impact of violence in Israel, and I empathized with the reality of struggle in a war-torn country. In the few days I had been in Israel, I had been surrounded by people yearning for peace; I saw it in the faces of old men and women sweeping their stoops and buying groceries at the shuk—they were tired of conflict.

A few days later my cohort traveled to the Negev Desert to meet Israel’s Bedouin, Arab nomads who practice Sunni Islam and are highly regarded for their desert tracking skills. Bedouin custom stipulates that if travelers seek food and shelter at their camp, the visitors must receive it without harm, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Accordingly, our hosts greeted us with generous hospitality, including a formal coffee roasting ceremony followed by a meal of lamb, curried rice, hummus, and of course, more coffee.

That night by the fire I asked our host if he considered himself an Israeli or simply a Bedouin. He responded that of course he was Israeli—he had been born in Israel. The man explained that although he is an Arab, a Muslim, and a nomadic Bedouin living in a politically Jewish state, he identifies as Israeli because Israel is a homeland to many cultures, customs, and traditions, including those he embraces. I began to think perhaps Israel wasn’t so enigmatic after all. Before I had come to Israel, I expected to see cultures clashing against each other as a result of the political and religious conflicts that plagued the country. It was a welcome surprise that I was wrong. Listening to the hem and haw of the camels outside our tent that night, I meditated on the thought that Israel, like America, is a place defined by its people.

My last day in Israel, I volunteered at an elementary school in Kiryat Malachi, a town where three civilians had recently been killed by a rocket attack from Gaza. While teaching the students English and playing games with them, I noticed something they perhaps did not: their diversity. Some were Israeli, some were European, and many were Ethiopian. The children appeared to see no differences among themselves—everyone was just a playmate. But to me, however, the willingness of these youth to accept others embodied Israel’s future. The children harbored no prejudices, and it inspired me to look at others with acceptance.

Hatikvah, the name of Israel’s national anthem, means “the hope.” I have never seen as much hope for change and for the future as I witnessed in Israel. I saw it in the pride and equality within their youth; I saw it in their understanding of each other despite cultural differences. From the first day of my journey, I met Yemenites, Arabs and Muslims, the Bedouin, Jews of all degrees of religious conviction, Africans, Christians, pilgrims seeking religious sites, and secular youth looking to the West for influence. All were distinct, yet united in their common ideals of acceptance, hope, and good will towards one another. I had learned that cultural diversity did not prevent a sense of community and friendship between them.

Just as Mount Herzl—a place where soldiers are buried—is green and alive despite the evidence of struggle and death around it, the people of Israel are alive with hope and compassion. Just as a Bedouin nomad can be a Muslim and an Arab, he can also be an Israeli because he embraces the same values as his countrymen. And the children, who are Israeli despite coming from worldwide diaspora, inspire a hope for peace and growth.