LETTER HOME: ON WHY I’VE CHOSEN TO VISIT ISRAEL
Dearest Family and Friends,
I fluctuated, to be honest, about where September would lead me. But in the end I chose Israel.
I knew that I wanted to visit a nation in the Middle East, but I wasn’t sure where exactly I might find the most meaningful experience. I had considered Israel as a destination when I had envisioned my original trajectory back in 2008. But for various reasons, it began to slip off the list of concrete destinations. One of these motives to avoid Israel was catalyzed by a well-respected friend, who questioned whether it would be a good idea for me to go into what many deem an occupied state.
“Maybe he’s right,” I thought, in the weeks following our chat, “Perhaps it would be wise to steer clear of such a politically charged state. Besides, I just don’t have defined personal politics regarding Israel. Maybe it’s best to wait until I’m more educated.”
Besides, Israel has a history of bullying other nations in the Middle East, right? At least that’s what I’ve been told. And there is also the dreaded Israeli Stamp Stigma, where evidence in one’s passport of a visit to Israel will prohibit entry into a number of Middle Eastern nations (such as Syria or Lebanon). I thought, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to go to Turkey or Jordan?”
But, as I’ve made my way across the world this year, something began to shift. Part of this change has been catalyzed by meeting some really lovely Israelis, such as Jonathan and Neta in the south of France. I learned more about the history of exchange-based volunteerism through agricultural communities at kibbutzim across the nation. This seemed to align perfectly with the type travel that I was undertaking.
One evening in France, after a lovely dinner of courgette quiche and red wine, Jonathan, off the top of his head, gave me the names of three different places where I could volunteer while in Israel: a Zionist community in the Southern Negev Desert, a goat farm among the hills of Har Hashabi and a 200-year-old Arab mansion turned guest house in Galilee. I pondered potential of the rich experiences that I could gain from each of these hosts.
There came an intuitive voice that urged me to invite something more politically charged into my explorations. As mentioned, my original thought was to steer clear of the region because I had such undefined politics about it. But then I realized that having undefined politics about a nation is a perfectly valid and rational reason to visit. Ultimately I’d like to move from feeling complete ignorance about the Middle East, to being able to form minor analyses based on my own experiences and perceptions.
The decision to go to Israel has subsequently spurred new thinking. One question that I’m exploring is the concept of “boycotting” a nation or place because I might not agree with it’s politics or laws or customs.
Allow me to provide an example.
For many years I was told (and subsequently believed) that I should not visit Jamaica because of the injustice faced against the LGBT peoples of the nation. The theory is that, by limiting the tourist dollar, we would somehow teach the nation a lesson about how they ought to celebrate sexual diversity. But I now see this example of boycotting as ineffectual. If anything, gay political leaders should be going by the boatload to Jamaica to provide support to those LGBT folks would are battling to survive in one of the world’s most unfriendly places to be openly non-heterosexual. Blanket policies, such as boycotting an entire nation, might provide a simplified form of helping a westerner feel like s/he might be helping. But are we?
Ultimately, what does effective intervention actually look like?
The case of tourism in Jamaica does not translate directly to my current quandary of whether or not to visit Israel. But one element does resonate through both examples, and that is the idea that blanket boycotting is an oversimplification to situations and political realities that are deeply complex. And I believe that we will not deescalate homophobia or sexism or racism by folding our arms and refusing to engage. This is as true in human relations as it is in international politics.
Incidentally, if there is any nation that I should consider boycotting based on international relations and problematic policy, I might consider placing the United States at the top of such list. But I spent the month of January in New Orleans, and deem myself richer for having visited. If I am learning anything, it’s that the ‘nation’ and the ‘people of a nation’ are separate entities.
And so I approach this month with the same perspective as all the other legs of this journey. I have chosen to visit Israel because I want to learn about the history and the culture and the people. And hopefully my experiences there will help to form me into a more learned citizen of the world.
Whether you, my family and friends and faithful readers, agree with this decision or not, I request that you join me in the questioning. What are your thoughts on boycotting a nation? Is there a place where you would never travel? What is problematic about choosing Israel as a destination? Help me in expanding my examination of this decision.
Dance with me on this one,