Congregation B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller didn’t expect to celebrate his 18th wedding anniversary in a Bethlehem back alley Israelis are forbidden to enter. But he seized the opportunity after receiving an invitation from Encounter, which aims to increase Jewish leaders’ knowledge and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rabbi Heller and 20 to 30 other rabbis, educators and community leaders traveled through Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem from June 27 to 30, then he chose to visit the settlement of Efrat on his own June 30 to July 2.

“I not only got to hear a set of voices I never hear from, but also gain exposure to a Jewish perspective from the settlers,” Rabbi Heller told an audience at his Sandy Springs synagogue Thursday, July 20. He said trip participants were allowed to develop their own interpretations.

Rabbi Heller said he participated because it’s important as a community leader to gain a better perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and share it with the public. “Despite disagreements both sides may have on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it is important to learn and have a better position of where each side is coming from.”

Rabbi Heller stayed with a Jewish family in Efrat and realized that most settlers live among the Palestinians because of theological influences and economic benefits. Living in the West Bank is not comfortable, Rabbi Heller said, but Israelis there want to reclaim land to which they have a historical connection going back thousands of years.

A sign warns Israelis not to enter the West Bank’s Area A, which is under full Palestinian Authority control. The PA controls civil but not security matters in Area B, and Israel handles most governmental functions in Area C. (Photo by Rabbi Joshua Heller)

Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem enjoy Israeli social services and can use their residency cards to travel around Israel. But traveling east across the pre-1967 border into the West Bank, you find that Palestinians’ ideology depends on whether they live in Area A, B or C, he said. “While talking to the Palestinians, you come to realize the checkpoint experience is not very pleasant and continues to trouble individuals despite who is in power,” Rabbi Heller said. “There are Israeli Arabs who are fully integrated into Israeli society, are members of the Knesset and enjoy Israeli rights but are now also identifying as Palestinians due to a rise in nationalism.”

After entering Bethlehem, the visitors saw a graffiti-covered wall separating Israelis and Palestinians. Rabbi Heller said the wall is a popular tourist site, prompting the opening of the “walled-off” hotel, not to be confused with the Waldorf, and the Wall Mart, selling supplies to international artists who wish to decorate the wall and promote a pro-Palestinian message.

Rabbi Heller stayed with a Palestinian family in an apartment that frequently hosts international guests, and he observed the family’s daily routine.

He also met with a Palestinian teacher who said educators are trying to remove hate from textbooks and to provide Israeli poetry to Arab students by removing the writers’ names and exposing the children to Israeli poets they otherwise wouldn’t read.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of the trip was meeting Palestinians and realizing that Jews and Arabs are looking into a mirror regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict,” Rabbi Heller said. “We come at the Israeli-Arab conflict from a range of viewpoints, but we live in a world where the boundary between fact and fiction is blurry at best in our own society and twice as true in Israel.”

A police escort ensures that Rabbi Joshua Heller doesn’t break Israeli law by trying to pray on the Temple Mount. (Photo by Rabbi Joshua Heller)

In addition to learning about the Christian community in Bethlehem and its fluctuating number of residents, based on whom you ask, Rabbi Heller also realized how difficult it is for Palestinians to get building permits.

While some attribute the difficulty to code enforcement or a requirement to build an entire structure at once and not in sections, others, Rabbi Heller said, blame discouragement from Israelis.

“It’s an example of how policies affect lives on the ground and how resentment builds,” he said.

The Palestinians not only dislike the Israeli government, Rabbi Heller said, but also loathe the Palestinian Authority for leaving Palestinians at a disadvantage, alongside the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which keeps the Palestinians as refugees instead of resettling them.

Groups from both sides seek peace and are trailblazers in helping Arabs and Jews get along, Rabbi Heller said.

“Although I was reluctant, I felt that the trip was something that would not come my way again, and I wanted to hear the range of voices that I had not been exposed to,” Rabbi Heller said. “As someone who is a supporter of AIPAC and an advocate for Israel, regardless of who’s in power, I thought this was a unique opportunity to hear what is going on on the other side of the fence.”