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Traveling to Israel changed me. In the span of eight days, I toured holy sites in Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, took part in Hanukkah festivities, and spoke to government leaders. My journey to Israel came about when I was invited to take part in an eight-day educational tour sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a group affiliated with the American pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

The intensive educational tour helped me gain an in-depth understanding of modern Israel, its politics, society, culture and the current state of the U.S-Israel relationship. This was a very important time to visit as the United States and Israel confront growing uncertainty in the region and are both seeking ways to advance the peace process. Through on-site visits, I learnt about innovative Israeli approaches to international and domestic issues. I was able to tour religious sites in Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, and I also participated in strategic surveys of Jerusalem and the Israeli borders with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. The program also included discussions with current and former Israeli government officials, Palestinian Authority representatives and leading academics and journalists. While my time in Israel was short, my experiences and interactions from that week have given me a brand-new understanding of the country, as well as the issues it faces today.

Many of you are already aware of the major issues surrounding Israel, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In no way do I condone the use of violence to resolve a dispute, especially one that has caused so much anger, controversy, and pain around the globe. I believe that the majority of people living in this area—the people who are in no way representative of actions carried out by ruling parties or by their ancestors—are united in their desire for one thing – Peace.

While in Israel, I met leaders on both side of the conflict in order to gain a more balanced and nuanced view of the challenges and dangers that both groups face in achieving this common goal. Besides learning more about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through daily experiences, I also realized that Israel is not the dangerous place that many of my friends and acquaintances imagine it to be. The issues that Israel deals with are, in many ways, like those faced by other modern-day nations such as the United States. Among these issues are racism, social problems, and security. In terms of day-to-day safety, Israel is as safe as most American cities, albeit with occasional exceptions.

My first destination was Jerusalem. Walking through a city that is considered holy to three of the world’s largest religions was a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.  While in Jerusalem, I had the chance to visit sites that were revered by Judaism (King David’s Tomb, the Western Wall, the remains of the ancient temple), Islam (the site of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Buraq Wall—the Islamic name for the Western Wall), and Christianity (the road which Christ walked to his crucifixion, the site of the Last Supper, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

In Jerusalem, I spoke with members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament)  on various issues. In particular, Brig. Gen. (Res) Former Chief of Counter Terrorism Nitzan Nuriel gave a very insightful overview of the interests and roles of Israel, other Middle Eastern and Western nations, as well as ongoing conflicts between these countries. He also spoke about the various options of one-state, two-state and  three-state solution involving Gaza, Israel, and Palestine.

Ten kilometers north, in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, I met with Dr. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian diplomat who negotiated the Oslo accord with Israel (which created the self-governing Palestinian Authority) in the 1990s. The mood in Palestine was pessimistic after the actions taken by Trump Administration to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem .He discussed his support for a two-state solution, which he said will ensure freedom for the Palestinian people to build their own future, while also allowing Israel to flourish.

I visited one of the communities known as a kibbutz barely a mile away from the Gaza strip. This kibbutz is under the constant threat of rockets being fired by the Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization known as Hamas from Gaza. The deadliest day of the protests was May 14, 2018 when the new American embassy held its opening ceremony. It fell on a symbolic date for both sides – the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel. That is a joyous day for Israelis, but an event regarded by Palestinians as their “Nakba” or catastrophe when they lost their homeland. Life in this kibbutz could often be described as “normal,” except for when Hamas rockets and mortar shells rain down. This happens monthly, and sometimes daily. The people here have, at best, fifteen seconds to find shelter from the rockets and shells when the warning sirens sound. And then there are the flaming kites that have destroyed thousands of square kilometers of crops, houses, and nature reserves over the past two months. When the chaos dies down, the people of this kibbutz try to return to some measure of normalcy in their daily lives.

I met Mr. Saed, chief negotiator of the Palestinian Liberation Organization  Mr. Saed told me about the violence carried out by Hamas and Israeli forces, as well as Palestine’s recent diplomatic relations with the US—support from Obama, followed by failed talks with Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Saed mentioned that since the plan to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was announced, Palestinian officials have refused to meet with their American counterparts  I gained a deeper understanding of the challenges that Palestine faced. I offered to speak to American lawmakers about their cause and act as a voice for freedom.

My journey to Israel showed me the pressures and challenges that both sides face. I learned more about the serious threats that Israel faces directly outside its borders. I am acutely aware of the discrimination and oppression that the Jewish people have experienced for centuries; my visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem was an acute reminder of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people only several generations ago. On the other hand, many Palestinians face human rights abuses on a daily basis and live in refugee camps in a crushing state of poverty. When I visited the West Bank, my heart broke for the Palestinians that I saw there, who were struggling to obtain basic necessities such as food and water.

No single side is to blame for this. In addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, parties such as the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have all played roles in bringing the conflict to its current state. In the end, the Israelis and Palestinians suffer.

Looking back on my conversations with Israeli and Palestinian figures, I did not get the impression that a two-state solution will happen anytime during the next five or ten years. However, that does not mean that ongoing peace efforts are for naught.

Older Jews and Arabs bear the heavy weight of history in their hearts and minds. Looking forward is difficult for them, since their thoughts of the future are often tainted by the past. But many among the younger generations of Israelis and Palestinians are different. They want to work together. To live together. Most importantly, they want to build a future together.

The history of Israel stretches back thousands of years to the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This land is home to a wealth of history, culture, and conflict—far too much lives there—information that cannot be gleaned during a visit of eight days. However, my trip to Israel opened my eyes in a way that no book, documentary, or conversation could have done.

Israel is a rising ,growing, flourishing country with people full of hope and pessimism at the same time since the people there live under a constant security threat from neighboring countries and terrorist groups. It showed me that the reality of Israel, or any country for that matter, is infinitely more nuanced than the way it is presented in the news.

As I walked through various places in Israel, I threw away my preconceptions and opened myself up to new ideas and experiences.

Ajay Bhutoria is a tech entrepreneur, and Democratic Party National Finance Committee Member. Ajay worked on the National AAPI Leadership council for the Hillary Clinton Campaign and worked with Joe Biden on free Community College initiatives. Ajay  is based out of Fremont, California.

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