Extending Hearts and Minds: Journeys into the West Bank
By Sam Sussman
The West Bank is a paradoxical locale in the contemporary American Jewish experience. In the American Jewish community, we often speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but few of us have ever met a Palestinian. Few opportunities to engage with Palestinian perspectives exist in our political, religious, social and professional circles. Our simple under-exposure to Palestinian perspectives and experiences is a detriment, not a strength, in navigating the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But what if young American Jewish leaders were offered the opportunity to compliment time in Israel with an informative, constructive two-way dialogue with Palestinian partners for peace in the West Bank?
Enter Extend, a start-up, non-profit organization founded last year, which offers college-aged and young professional Jewish Americans low-cost, five-day educational tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Extend participants meet with Palestinian Authority officials, leading grassroots activists, public intellectuals, businesspeople and other civil society leaders. In conversation with these Palestinian peace leaders, Extend participants experience the rare opportunity to critically engage with Palestinian perspectives and lived experiences, and to appreciate the sincere intent of many Palestinians to achieve peace, reconciliation, and mutual good will.
Extend also introduces young American Jews to a wide network of Israelis committed to and working for regional peace, from the founder of the only joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station, to former Israeli Defense Force personnel. Many of our alumni say that their most powerful experiences come from exposure to organizations that are part of the web of joint Israeli-Palestinian civil society organizations committed to mutual understanding and conflict transformation, such as Combatants for Peace, which brings together former Israeli and Palestinian armed adversaries in mutual conversation.
By introducing American Jews to voices that rarely make it into our community’s conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Extend empowers young people to imagine the possibilities of peace, reconciliation, and mutual good will. It shows them that these are not impossible dreams, but the sincere desires of active leaders in Israeli and Palestinian society. Extend equips young people with the inspiration and curiosity to begin engaging with both national societies’ understanding of the conflict. Without dismissing the very real impediments to peace, Extend tour leaders facilitate active conversation which permits participants to uncover and confront the difficult questions that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many of Extend’s 45+ alums in the United States have already taken active roles in their communities. Through presentations at synagogues, leadership roles in campus J Street chapters, advocacy in organizations such as Open Hillel, and countless informal conversations, these young people are acting out the sacred Jewish traditions of seeking truth and advocating for justice.
We welcome you to join an Extend tour this summer. Extend will offer tours on May 31-June 4, and June 6-10. Please email extendtours.org for more information, or visit Extendtours.org to learn more about our organization.
Sam Sussman is the co-founder and co-director of Extend.