Last summer when Dara said she was applying to go on a trip to Israel with two of her best friends, I was super dubious. I declared many times, “This is totally a Zionist trip, there’s no way that for $300 you’ll be doing anything but being brainwashed about Israel.” The trip was for social entrepreneurs and Dara was a great candidate for it, due to her experience dropping her day job and living off her savings to start a global peace project, A Big Project.
I was kind of nervous to have Dara walking around in the Middle East and especially Israel. I grew up hearing about suicide bombers in night clubs and genuinely thought that Dara was in danger heading to Israel. But my friends Kieran and Shelly had just spent a year living there and came back in one piece, my Grandmother and Aunt had both visited Israel multiple times and were fine (and loved it). So I did what I do to feel okay about her choices and was grateful every time I heard from her.
The whole time she was in Israel we talked a half dozen times and every communication was about how little sleep they were getting and that the food was great. I laughed because one of Dara’s greatest pet peeves is less than 8 hours of sleep. I was surprised to hear afterward that the trip was “extremely nuanced” and that they were given a lot of perspectives about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.* (See my footnote for a discussion of how “extremely nuanced” played out in my perspective, but that was the verbatim description Dara gave me when she got back from her trip.)
“The whole point of being an artist or making a statement is to learn about yourself.”—Robert Mapplethorpe
Dara has a complicated relationship with her Judaism yet came home wanting to have Shabbat dinners. She wrote for a grant to do our Epic Seder this past Spring from the foundation who runs the trips, the Schusterman Foundation. I knew there was a component of the curation that developed an intimacy with Jewish culture that was special enough that Dara, with all her complications, felt a connection to it.
I went to a couple of reunion events with Dara while we were still living in New York and really enjoyed the people I met there. Everyone she’s introduced me to from her REALITY Global trip is totally awesome and it intrigued me. They are curating a trip with really amazing people who can make connections with each other to enact social good. It was clear that there was more to this trip than just a tour of Israel, it’s a powerful network of change makers.
Along the lines of meeting great people, Dara hung out with a friend in Washington, DC from her REALITY Global trip. The friend happens to be Michelle Obama’s speechwriter and that Milania plagiarized speech was written by Sarah early in her work with the Obamas. (You HAVE to read this amazing Washington Post article about Sarah, but also know Sarah is a kind, smart and dynamic person apart from her extraordinary speechwriting.)
Me and Sarah at the final meal of the trip.
Anyway, Sarah told Dara that she was going to be a facilitator on the inaugural REALITY Storytellers trip and that I should apply.
I considered it. A funded trip might be the only chance I would get to visit Israel ever and my Grandfather is buried in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He is descended from the Tribe of Levi, he just barely escaped the German Holocaust and his brother Kurt ended up moving to Israel after Israel’s declaration of independence. It was super important to Kurt that Grandfather be buried in the Mount of Olives. (Check out my Lesbian Tea Basket episode with my Grandmother to hear about his escape and just a bit about his extraordinary life.)
I also have never previously left the country other than Canada. I do a lot of domestic travel but haven’t had the funds or family resources to travel internationally. It felt exciting to open up to a new opportunity and learn more about the world. I mean, I would LOVE to be a world traveler so here’s the chance to do something new and cool.
Knowing the trip had helped Dara get more in touch with her Judaism I was excited to get more exposure to it, since it was important to her father that I help continue that legacy in the Barlin family.
I knew that I might be stepping into some shit in my community because radical queers tend to default to supporting the boycott of Israel. I don’t want to support a government that oppresses people and creates an apartheid state, which was all I had heard about the West Bank. I didn’t know the terms of the boycott but I remember my roommate’s then girlfriend having a lot of Feelings about violating the boycott by buying her a Soda Stream.
If a boycott is against a whole country, that’s something that is hard for me to get behind. I’m a person who doesn’t agree with the actions of my government. Here in the US the legacies of slavery and colonialism are alive and well. The mass-incarceration of people of color, the prison industrial complex, the execution of unarmed Black men by our police force, Guantanamo Bay. Literally all of US real estate is stolen from Native Americans. Would I want someone to make a judgement about me as a person based on my government? Especially when a Bush was in office? It felt hard for me to want to support a boycott of a people when it’s the government and not all of the people who are propagating the policies I don’t agree with.
I learned from Dara’s global peace building work that in the era of social media there have been a lot of cross-border political collaborations and art projects. I wanted to meet the folks who made up that Israel. Who are the radical queers in Israel and what are they up to? What do they believe is a viable peace solution in a volatile region?
This is the view of the moon rising from Mt. Bental overlooking the Golan Heights and into Syria. We could hear bombing. At the top of this mountain I lead us in a prayer for peace. I still pray that we can use our connections and what we learned as fertile ground for social change and peace building.
Since I understood the trip to was NOT a dogmatic zionist approach to Israel, I thought it would be a powerful way to learn more about the conflict and develop my own opinions rather than fall lock-step with what other people tell me to think about things. A friend of mine went on a different curated trip to Israel and the West Bank and came back full of political ammunition against the Israeli government. Remembering his writing after that trip I knew no matter what I learned about the conflict after the trip I would do a lot of learning and developing by choosing to go.
I applied for the trip. I wrote my essays focusing on my art and activism in the body positive and queer communities. I talked about my ties to and interest in Judaism. I managed to make an only 90 second (the limit) introductory video. And I got accepted.
The trip itself was a fifty-person tour group made up mostly of participants, who came from many walks of life. There were way more Christians with no ties to Judaism on the trip than I thought there would be. (I would be considered “strong ties to Judaism” because of my partner and my Grandfather.) It was roughly third Jewish folks, a third strong ties and a third no ties. The Storytellers were from all types of Storytelling, political speechwriters, broadway performers, actors, social media managers, TV and movie producers, journalists, novelists and more. And a queer body liberation blogger (that’s me).
In addition to the 40ish participants we had our facilitators who had been on previous trips, three to five staff members from the Foundation plus more that popped on and off the bus, our tour guide, our bodyguard, our bus driver and sometimes a photographer. Our schedule was packed early morning to late night with activities. Sometimes lectures at the hotel but more often out and about seeing things and hearing about them from our tour guide. We had a panel of journalists, tons of leadership development activities, tours of villages and went all over Israel from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea, a big ol’ crater in the desert to Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
I feel like I got a Master’s degree level immersive coursework about Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians, the war in Syria. Old and New Testament Bible stories come to life. Israel was nothing like I expected and the trip completely blew me away, creatively, emotionally, politically, and left me more curious than ever. I have way more questions than I came with.
To say I feel small against the enormity of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an understatement. A Democratic state that is trying to adhere to a specific religious and cultural identity in a modern world and all of the other difficulties bridging human diversity in the Middle East is mind boggling.
I’m always pretty obsessed with the moon from an astrological and energetic standpoint. The moon was full while we were there. It was an Aquarius Full Moon, flooding the collective with humanitarian energies. I thought that was auspicious for the work we as Storytellers could do to create bridges for peace.
I kept thinking that if this was a masters program and I did need to write a thesis, what would I talk about? I was listening to Antony and the Johnsons when I got home and in Future Feminism, an off the cuff stage banter piece from her album Cut the World, she starts out talking about the moon. I remembered about how we were collectively obsessed with the moon in Israel. In Future Feminisms she talks about shifting the world towards matrilineal systems of governance, religion and corporate leadership. I realized that if I were writing a masters thesis, I would apply the concept proposed in Future Feminism to Israel. What would a matrilineal system do to affect the peace process and protection of all humans in and around that region.
“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”—Eleanor Roosevelt
I’m a woman with a lot of complexities, I at once feel small and powerless but take my role as a person who is a Storyteller seriously. It’s scary to talk about something that is controversial and I know will make some of my friends mad at me. But I also know I won’t do anything to work towards peace by staying quiet. I am pro human rights and pro solutions and I don’t think solutions come from shutting down conversation. I’m interested in learning more and having more interactions with folks who want to find peace. So in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, here goes a whole series of blog posts about my trip and what I learned.
When I bought my Type-H electric adaptors for the trip, I could only get a set of 4 and I was already thinking about reselling them when I got home. But now I’m going to hold onto them because I’m pretty sure I’m somehow going back.
I’m excited to write more about this trip, about what I learned and experienced about myself, the people, the conflict and the role of Storytellers as social change in subsequent blog posts.
“I’m someone who’s looking for a reason to hope, and for me hope looks like feminine systems of governance being instated in, like, the major religious institutions and throughout corporate and civil life. And it might sound far-fetched, but if you look at your own beliefs, just imagine how quickly you accepted the idea that the ocean is rising and the ecology of our world is collapsing. We can actually imagine that more readily than we can imagine a switch from patriarchal to matriarchal systems of governance — a subtle shift in the way our society works.”–Antony and the Johnsons
*I’ll say that the idea that it was “nuanced” was interesting to me and my experience of how the nuance played out was that the folks giving us presentations (most often our incredible tour guide Michael) would tell us a story and say, “I am going to contradict myself” and would tell us a another side of it. I learned immediately that, as in other conflict situations I’ve been in, it is reductive to say “sides” as thought there are only two. Often we would here two, three or four perspectives. I’m not sure if other trips to Israel give as much detail or have as much information and perspective as we were given access to. I also know there’s always more information than what we are given and that curiosity will bring more.