Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday. The Seder table is a remarkable place — it brings families together, teaches us about our history and traditions, and compels us to kick our feet up, recline in our chairs, and learn about our past over four glasses of wine. 

But this year, I didn’t go to a Passover Seder — not because I didn’t want to, but because I feel as though there is no place for me at the table. Instead, I took some time to reflect on my lived experience with Israel-Palestine and what we might mean by next year in Jerusalem.

In 2018, after my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I was set to spend the month of May in Israel. As I sat on the runway waiting to take off, I didn’t really know much about the place at all. I certainly didn’t understand the complexities inherent in its existence — let alone have an opinion on them. In spite of — or because of — my ignorance, I had signed up for two distinct but related trips that would take me around the country. 

Birthright & Hasbara 

The first was Birthright, a 10-day trip primarily funded by various Jewish philanthropic organizations. It is both widely beloved and demonized, depending on which group you belong to and which assumption you made above. Whatever your opinion on Birthright, it was nothing compared to my second program. Hasbara Fellowships can be thought of as something like Birthright Unmasked. The program is far less inclusive, and is restricted to those who have demonstrated some sort of ‘pro-Israel’ activism on campus. Hasbara is far more explicit in their whitewashing; that is, more or less, their mission. 

As participants, we were expected not only to learn the program’s many talking points, but to toe the line when we returned to our universities. The program’s funding model made this explicit — earning your deposit back is conditioned upon a showing of ‘pro-Israel’ advocacy on campus after the program. I still can pinpoint the exact day when my interest in Israel-Palestine transformed from that of a passive program participant looking to have fun while exploring a new place to that of an up and coming law and policy student who had identified a serious problem and wanted to try to help fix it.

About a week into the program, we had taken a tour of Rawabi, a Qatari-funded city in the West Bank. The city was picturesque — a Roman style, open-air amphitheater; a shopping center boasting Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other high end designer stores; there was even a municipally run zip-line overlooking the mostly uninhabited desert surrounding the city. The streets were deserted — I don’t recall seeing a single resident beyond our two tour guides. They explained this was due in part to the fact that it was Ramadan, which meant that many residents remained inside sleeping during their daily fast, and in part because the Palestinian Authority had a vested interest in the city’s failure. “The success of a Qatari built city would reflect poorly on the Palestinian Authority, and they do what they can to prevent that,” our tour guide said, matter-of-factly. On the bus ride home, the pervading sentiment was relief that the whole thing wasn’t a set up — that we hadn’t been “taken out” by Palestinian snipers. 

That night, my randomly assigned roommate and I talked about the pervading sentiment our fellow participants had shared. I was a bit skeptical, but he stood in bullish opposition. He was a few years older than me, and had a far better understanding of the narrative we were being fed — and its inherent deficiencies. While I had previously felt moments of skepticism about the propriety of what we were being deputized in service of, that experience and subsequent conversation validated and exacerbated the growing divide between the narrative Hasbara sought to impose upon me — or rather, the narrative it assumed I was on board with and that it hoped I would spread back on campus — and my growing desire to ascertain an unbiased narrative. Needless to say, I didn’t try to get my deposit back when I returned to campus.


A year later, I returned to Israel-Palestine on another summer program, this one also a month long, that provided students with internships, housing and a few weekend activities. I chose to intern at Windows, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding between Israeli and Palestinian children. When I arrived, Windows was in the process of creating a comprehensive history of the world — the idea was that, because Israeli and Palestinian students learned very different histories that stoked mutual animosity, perhaps creating and distributing a single comprehensive history could encourage mutual understanding. I was tasked with creating the political timeline of Israel-Palestine (the project was divided along geographical and thematic dimensions — each timeline focused on one of the world, Middle East/North Africa, and Israel-Palestine and was tied together by a common theme). In other words, my job asked me to do exactly what I myself had come to do — to understand the current political reality and how we arrived at this moment. 

I spent the entire summer working on that timeline — I started in biblical times and made it all the way to the late 1990s. By the time I had finished, I had a legitimate understanding of the historical circumstances that led to the modern Israel-Palestine conflict. And my internship brought me on a tour of Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, where our guide was a local resident who had lived there his whole life. 

As we walked through the city streets, he told us stories of growing up under the thumb of an occupying army. He pointed to an Israeli army base, perched high above the town, and described crawling under the windows in his home to avoid being spotted by Israeli snipers who would shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. He recounted how, when the army finally retreated, his father brought him to his grandparents’ home — only he was small enough to dig through the rubble, and thus only he could see if they had survived the latest round of hostilities. This tour was a watershed moment in my understanding of Israel-Palestine. A year earlier, I was sitting in the ballroom of a grand but aloof hotel only miles away, furiously scribbling Hasbara talking points — Israel has the right to defend itselfonly democracy in the Middle East … etc. — and here was a first-person account that made clear everything Hasbara sought to obfuscate.

Tel Aviv with Bojack

Upon graduating from college, I returned to Israel-Palestine to work at another non-profit. This time I arrived with a solid understanding of the historical facts, was well-versed in the dueling narratives, and had substantial exposure to what life was like for both Israelis and Palestinians. This time, I wanted the real thing — not curated programming, not hours and hours of historical research, not even guided tours. I wanted to know what it meant to live in Israel-Palestine — what it would mean to and for me

I spent 10 months in a small neighborhood in Tel Aviv that I had come to know well throughout my time there — a neighborhood I had made home. I became a part of the community — I chatted with the local shawarma man (he in broken English and I in broken Hebrew), played Israeli-style street soccer with the locals, and even rescued a dog, Bojack. He was brought to Tel Aviv by a rescue agency after being plucked off of the streets of Bethlehem when he was only a few weeks old. The disparate fates of the lucky dogs whisked away to Tel Aviv and the humans left behind were not lost on me. Beyond becoming a neighborhood fixture, I got a heavy dose of reality — Israeli reality anyway — as tensions between Israel and Hamas flared during my time there. Over about a month of escalation, I, like every other Israeli, duly fled to the bomb shelters whenever the sirens rang. And rang. And rang. And rang again. 

It was deeply, deeply unsettling. How else can you describe being woken up in the middle of the night by sirens to walk across the hall to a bomb shelter? But that doesn’t even scratch the surface. In those shelters, I was alone. Sometimes literally — it was just me and the dog — but always alone with my thoughts. I thought about just how quickly I had become accustomed to these interruptions. About how lucky I was to live in a building with a bomb shelter on every floor (not at all unique in Israeli cities) and the most advanced missile defense system in the world, the Iron Dome, overhead. 

I thought about how the sirens interrupted me as I was cooking dinner — my mac and cheese was ruined, I moaned. Then I thought about Israel’s inevitable response — oh how I dreaded the response. About how, when Israel retaliates, there are no sirens and no shelters, only leaflets. Leaflets that fall from the sky — run, they say; your building will be eviscerated in 30 minutes. But where to? Gaza City is the densest city in the world. I tried to imagine what that would be like — to have 30 minutes to pack anything and everything; to say goodbye to your home; to know that you will never return and that your neighbors may not survive. I thought about how I scrambled to scoop up my puppy when I heard the sirens, and about all the pets that hadn’t been brought to the other side of the fence — the side with the shelters. I thought about how people on the other side of the world, people who may have never been to Israel-Palestine — who almost certainly have never fled to a bomb shelter — would lionize my plight. And, most dreadfully, how they would do so at the expense of those without the sirens, without the shelters, without the Iron Dome. 

I returned from my year in Israel-Palestine with newfound conviction and a steadfast belief: Israeli self-determination must not — could not — come at the expense of Palestinian self-determination. It was beyond clear to me that the status-quo there was eroding, that it was unsustainable. That if something wasn’t done, one shock to the system could tear at the very fabric of the region. Funnily enough, there was one Hasbara talking point that had stuck with me all these years — it felt more true and more urgent than ever:

“The conflict is not a zero-sum game.” 

It seems so simple, and yet, it is the most powerful and under-utilized framing I have encountered thus far. Returning home, it became clear that the conventional American understanding of the conflict is that of a sporting event — when Israel wins, Palestine loses, and vice versa. Those hours of reflection in the bomb shelter had laid bare just how wrong this view was. And as I traversed my way through policy and law school — on the same campus where I skirted my Hasbara obligations years earlier — I yearned for any opportunity to communicate this lesson, and everything else I had learned on my journey. 

PalTrek & iTrek

Opportunity came knocking in my first year of law school. I received an email about an upcoming trip — PalTrek — that brought students to Israel-Palestine to, in their own words, “build a network of future leaders and advocates in the United States who learn the Palestinian narrative through an immersive educational trip to Palestine.” In my application, I talked about my previous experiences and tried to convey that my willingness to criticize the Israeli government came from a place of patriotism — I loved Israel, and because of that, I expected and demanded that it be held to the highest standard with respect to its treatment of Palestinians. 

The meetings emphasized that the purpose of the program was to center Palestine and the Palestinian narrative. This was not a complicated issue, the organizers said matter-of-factly as participants nodded along — it was as simple as good and bad. While this sharply contrasted with my view, I sat quietly and listened intently as participants recounted their own ties to the land, how their families had been personally impacted, and how they felt marginalized at home because of their identity.

The trip wasn’t cheap, and so I asked my parents if they’d be willing to help me with the cost. They were ambivalent at best, but by pure happenstance, we were able to work out a compromise in the truest sense of the word. PalTrek’s inaugural trip was organized by a small group of Columbia Law students in response to iTrek. iTrek, in their own words, “introduces tomorrow’s leaders in business, law, policy and STEM to Israel, helping them experience Israel firsthand through peer-led, week-long Israel Treks.” It just so happened that, as I was signing up for PalTrek, iTrek was looking for a Michigan Law student to organize a trek at the school, and my previously cataloged experience made me a top candidate. My parents and I agreed that, if I led the Michigan Law iTrek, I could go on the Michigan Law PalTrek. 

While this may seem ideologically untenable in the abstract, iTrek gave their leaders complete and unfettered control over the trip’s programming. In my mind, this grant of discretion by iTrek — along with the fact that I had outwardly expressed my own opinions on the immorality of the Israeli government to iTrek recruiters — was an implicit endorsement to build a trip that embodied my own views about the conflict. I convinced myself that it was possible to thread the needle; that I could, in part due to my participation on PalTrek, create an itinerary that captured the complexity of the conflict while providing participants with an opportunity to form their own opinions based on a diverse set of speakers and experiences augmented by a healthy dose of group discussion. 

As time passed though, and both Treks grew closer, the tensions inherent in what I had set out to do began to mount. When we publicly launched the trip with a short and preliminary email to the law school’s listserv seeking students interested in a trip to Israel, within minutes, another student responded with a terse remark about Israel and apartheid. Shortly thereafter, a third student commented, expressing discomfort at how quickly an event related to Israel was disparaged.

At this point, seeking to nip the controversy in the bud, I felt I had to intervene. I sought to offer a thoughtful account of both my own beliefs and what I hoped to accomplish with the trip. “Israel has fundamental issues with regards to human rights, and this trip is in no way an attempt to overlook or minimize those issues,” I noted, adding that interrogating prospective human rights issues would be “a substantial part of the programming.” Perhaps idealistically, I noted that politically charged “buzzwords” like apartheid and anti-semitism “obfuscate the on-the-ground circumstances of the conflict and impede real discussions about potential solutions,” especially when used in a large public forum addressing an audience with widely disparate views. 

In hindsight, my attempt to “put an end to this thread” was always doomed to fail. I had unwittingly opened up Pandora’s box — I couldn’t simply close it by asking nicely. In the next six hours, countless responses poured in. Some thoughtfully, and others not as much so, criticized my response — there was no nuance here, just wrong and right. Others vehemently opposed what they saw as overzealous criticism motivated by anti-semitism, and emphasized the dangers faced by Israelis every day. Many more argued over whether this was the correct forum for such discussions at all. Seven hours later, as the debate continued to rage, I re-entered the fray. 

I noted that, while I generally agree with the conceptual validity of labeling Israel as an occupier and its treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, I nonetheless stand by my denunciation of buzzwords. “This isn’t to say that these words are meaningless,” I wrote; rather, “it is to say that using certain words necessarily limits who will be willing to receive your message.” I went on to share the history of my relationship with Israel. I did so, I wrote, “not as an effort to save my reputation, nor an effort to inspire feelings of guilt or valor in those who chose to ‘reply all’ to my email,” but to “demonstrate my good-faith commitment to resolving a conflict that, over the course of my travels, has become deeply personal to me.” 

Within 24 hours, the organizers of PalTrek — fellow law students who saw the exchange play out in their inboxes — requested a meeting. They saw my involvement with iTrek as a grave betrayal, and gave me an ultimatum: PalTrek or iTrek — us or them. 

They expressed fears that I had compromised the viability of the trip — they worried I would leak sensitive details to the Israeli government, who would in turn deny them entry, or worse, detain them indefinitely. I tried to assure them that my loyalties remained where they had always been — in faithful pursuit of a peaceful and just solution — and that I would never seek to compromise the integrity of their trip. I told them that, having accepted a leadership role, I felt as though I owed a duty to fulfill my obligations to iTrek, and expressed hope that they would have a meaningful trip even as we agreed that my presence on it had become untenable.

iTrek’s response came shortly thereafter. An anonymous student had forwarded them my emails, and the Director of the Graduate Program wanted an explanation. Again, I told him that I stood by what I had written — that my deep love and affection for Israel manifested itself not in blind allegiance, but in a steadfast belief that, as Jews, we have a duty to hold Israel to the highest of standards, and to ferociously pursue those heightened standards. He thanked me for my candor, and after consulting with his team, informed me of the organization’s decision to postpone the trip. He said that they would reach out again the following year to see if I remained interested in leading it (they did, and I was not). 

The experience of being universally rejected by individuals and groups on both sides was another watershed moment for me. I felt as though there was no longer room for someone with my background and experiences — that the two camps had become so polarized, and saw the issue as so black and white, that neither had any interest in dealing with someone who dared suggest that there may be a splash of gray. 

Individuals and organizations that view the conflict as black and white push us further from our shared goals. These organizations fail to accept the basic and fundamental reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict: neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere. 

Viewing the conflict as black and white is to view it as a zero-sum game — as a contest between two groups for one piece of land, where a winner will eventually triumph and gain sole possession at the expense of the other. This is necessarily implicit in PalTrek’s and Hasbara’s framing: denying the basic truths that both groups have legitimate claims to the land, and that neither group will willingly pick up and leave. 

This framing views compromise as an unacceptable loss, and portrays suffering as the cost of victory — a victory that will never be achieved by either side. 

My Passover Prayer

To the traditional pro-Israel American Jew, my fellow American Jew, I beg of you to reconsider your priors and open your eyes. I understand that you believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, and that can be an effective talking point. But I ask you, in all seriousness, what are the outer bounds of that right? Is it possible some of Israel’s actions in the past months have gone beyond exerting its right to defend itself? Can it justify the countless, gut-wrenching, testimonials from visiting doctors about the abhorrent state of Gaza's healthcare system? What about mass graves where victims were found with their hands tied? Or soldiers' shitposting the destruction of entire communities in live time? If this were any other issue, would you be cheering on police using tasers on students and slamming a university professor into the concrete? 

These are not hypotheticals. Words have meaning, and for far too long, pro-Israel American Jews have stood behind the same talking points, shielding their eyes and shutting their ears to the horrors of occupation — to the reality of Palestinian life within what they rightfully regard as their homeland. In its short 76 years of existence, Israel has grown up from its plucky underdog status as a minnow in shark-infested waters. It has become a regional powerhouse. Milenia of Jewish trauma, combined with the US’ rubber stamp, has tempted Israel’s worst impulses — fear, spite, vengeance — and it is our solemn duty as Jews to oppose those forces no matter where they appear. 

And to those dedicated to Palestinian liberation, my fellow progressives, I similarly beg of you to think of the Jewish perspective. We have 3,000 years of reasons to be wary of Jewish hatred. And, to be frank, your movement has seriously struggled to distance itself from antisemites. In the immediate aftermath of October 7, before the bodies of the innocent music-festival patrons were cold, many among you were openly celebrating the gruesome murders of our friends, family, and tribesmen. Many, including organizations on my own campus, have openly called for a third, global Intifada. Make no mistake, this is calling for the indiscriminate murder of any and every Jew, wherever they may be and whatever they may believe. This is not the way to win hearts and minds — something you will invariably have to do if you have any hope of achieving your stated goals. 

These are very real issues that your movement must deal with. Just as traditional Pro-Israel American Jews have turned a blind eye to Israel’s cruelty on the other side of the world, might it be possible that you have become so laser-focused on Israel’s cruelty that you have failed to notice that your own movement is threatening to become tainted by the very hatred you claim to oppose?

Passover, the holiday that inspired this piece, tells the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. The 49 days between our exodus from Egypt and arrival in Israel, the Omer, have been counted since biblical times. Just as Palestine is the home of your fathers, Israel is the home of our ancestors. That we have a special — and, more importantly, a legitimate — connection to the land should be self-evident. Further, I would respectfully ask you to consider the state of worldwide Jewry in the years leading up to the foundation of Israel in 1948. The Holocaust and pogroms do not justify Israel’s present conduct, and cannot fully justify the worst acts of its past. But this history does provide crucial context that is almost universally left out of the ‘settler colonialism’ narrative that Palestinian activists are so quick to latch onto. 

Finally, to both the traditional Pro-Israel Jew and the supporter of Palestinian liberation, I would ask that you consider these fundamental truths: the land of Israel-Palestine is as holy as any in the world. You have been blessed to have a vested interest in such a fundamental piece of land. But your right to that land is not absolute, and it need not come at the expense of the other. 

The collective fates of Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians are inextricably tied; only together may we rise or fall. I ask you to look deep inside of your heart, and consider whether the destruction of your perceived enemy is worth the destruction of yourself. If not, perhaps now is the time for a different approach — an approach centered around the fundamental reality that neither people is going to pick up and leave. It is up to each of us to decide whether to continue this bloody fight to the death, or to embrace our intertwined destinies and begin to build a peaceful future for us all.