What does oppression feel like? What happens if we label the relationship between Israel and Palestine as apartheid, and how does that title change our experience and perception of the region, and America’s own involvement? Are our host families, generous to a fault in welcoming a complete stranger into their homes and filling our plates past protests of complete satiation, silently suffering past their means under inflated prices and lost opportunities? During our lectures and field trips around the West Bank, passionate and convicted Palestinians share their stories and effortlessly evoke our deepest sympathies.

As responsible stewards in an EMU Cross-Cultural, we have been reminded of the importance of a balanced understanding; we cannot fully understand even one side if we neglect to understand both. But when our host families and speakers relay stories of suffering or injustice, how will we walk into a settlement, or an encroaching and internationally illegal community of Israelis on Palestinian land, and empathize with the imposing doctrines of Zionism, of Colonialism?

The more we learn about the cruelty and injustice of the situation here, the more questions invariably spring up. How to solve decades of an imbalance of power; are the refugees from the 1948 massacres entitled to their homes, or does it only perpetuate a backwards focus? What can justice be, and what should peace look like? Is justice for one side automatically injustice for the other?

Miraculously, amidst the seemingly suffocating questions, life goes on. Kids sprint around the stone sidewalks and archways on their lunch breaks; my host father sits in his kitchen appliance store and talks with his friends over cups of sugary tea and games of backgammon. People get married, have children, fight, relate, and make up, regardless of political situation. The realities of daily life still shape the people here, fostering a necessary grip of understanding for us Americans. We may experience a window into lives marred by immense hardship, but also the human propensity for optimism and perseverance.

-Kate Swartz