Can a Trip to the Holy Land Help a Republican and a Democrat Find Peace?

How a trip to the Middle East taught a blue-state liberal to get along with her red-state mother

Can a Trip to the Holy Land Help a Republican and a Democrat Find Peace?

Banksy graffiti on the West Bank Wall

Photo by Shilo Urban

“Trump is good for America.”

I cringe in horror and sink lower into my window seat. My mother perches beside me, praising the virtues of the presidential candidate to a minibus full of strangers. Not just any strangers—young, single, male strangers: Australians, a Londoner, and a French-speaking Belgian. It’s an international buffet of sexy accents. And they’re completely captivated by my mom and her love of the controversial candidate for whom I have nothing but contempt. The road back from Petra seems to stretch on forever. How far to the Israeli border?

Two weeks earlier we had arrived in Jerusalem.

It was 2016 and the U.S. presidential election was still five months away. At that point, we didn’t know Trump would win. We didn’t know that a travel ban would soon affect families living just 200 miles away from the places we were visiting. All we knew was that we were traveling to the Holy Land from opposite ends of the political spectrum—me from blue California and my mother from red Texas.

For my conservative mother, this trip to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories was a pilgrimage to the birthplace of her Christian beliefs. For her liberal daughter—not so much. I’d stepped away from my childhood faith long ago, breaking my mother’s heart in the process. Since then, our conversations about social issues and politics had often dissolved into anger and tears. Eventually, we stopped talking about sensitive subjects altogether.

Instead, we focused on our shared love of travel. Trips like this allowed me to bond with my mother away from the constant reminders of our differences. Still, I worried that unrest, not just on the streets of the West Bank, but within the walls of our hotel room, might disrupt our trip. We left for the Middle East having agreed to a prohibition on political talk.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Photo by Shilo Urban

Like my mother and me, Jerusalem has agreed to disagree—at least for now. It is arguably the world’s most fought-over city, captured and recaptured almost four dozen times. Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Christians, Ottomans, the British, and Jordanians have all laid claim to Jerusalem. Today, it is a touchpoint in the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Christians, Muslims, and Jews live in a tense détente together in the Old City.

Enclosed by mighty medieval walls, the Old City covers less than one square kilometer. We followed paths that pilgrims have plodded for centuries through the labyrinth of twisting alleyways connecting the city’s four distinct quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian.

While there was a perceptible shift in energy, dress, and often language between neighborhoods, the feeling was superseded by the overarching tangle of humanity. Muslim cabbies waited for fares at the Christian Quarter’s Jaffa Gate. Jews emerged from their homes in the Muslim Quarter, passing by Christian churches en route to work.

Even holy sites rubbed shoulders. Throngs of Russians, Ethiopians, and Southern Baptists waited patiently to glimpse Jesus’ tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Just a few blocks away, Jewish worshippers bowed their heads humbly, shuffling backward away from the Western Wall. Around the corner, the glistening, golden Dome of the Rock, Haram esh-Sharif (aka the Temple Mount) is a sacred location for Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.

There may have been deep-seated differences plaguing the people of Jerusalem, but the sense of respect crammed between its dusty stones was palpable—respect for the city’s sacred stature and respect for the divine nature of coexisting.

It was a feeling that felt sadly unfamiliar to me, with the election looming and the United States foaming at the mouth in division. Despite our pledge, it proved impossible for my mother and me to not talk politics. Upon learning we were American, almost every English-speaker we met asked what we thought about the upcoming election. Everywhere we went, from hole-in-the-wall holy water shops to our hotel lobby, people wanted to know who we were voting for.

From Jerusalem, we traveled north to the Sea of Galilee and the shores where Jesus first taught that revolutionary message of understanding, “Love your enemies.” Our guide, Mimi, was a petite, profane, straight-talking secular Jew. Between traffic standoffs (she always won) and a stop for the best falafels in Haifa, Mimi shared her opinions on Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all the other a-holes under the sun.

“It’s bullshit,” she declared, when I asked about a gender-segregated bus that drove by. Women sat in the back of the bus while men in black-and-white clothing filled the front. Although not a law, the separation was common practice—and discrimination, according to Mimi. Many of the passengers were Haredi, Mimi explained, extremely conservative Jews that make up 10 percent of Israel’s population. Known for rejecting modern culture, they are a source of resentment for some Israelis. Haredim are exempt from Israel’s mandatory military service. Many live off taxpayer-funded stipends because their devotion to studying the Torah leaves little time for other work. With an average of seven children per family, the group is growing rapidly—and adding a strain on the economy. “But still, we are all one family, one country,” Mimi said as the bus pulled away. “We’ll work it out.”

We said good-bye to Mimi when we got to Jericho; as an Israeli, she was forbidden to enter this region of the West Bank (Area C). In her place, we picked up Ahmed, an archaeologist and peace activist. As a Palestinian, he was not allowed on the other side (Area A).

Ahmed’s first act of peace was to treat us to a popular local breakfast: pizza. Through mouthfuls of lamb meatballs, he confessed that his goal as an activist was easier said than done: to get Palestinians and Israelis to talk. “We want the same things,” he explained. Safety. Happiness. Peace. But people can’t solve their disagreements if they won’t discuss them. “If we refuse to talk, our influence for peace ends. When we talk together, then we can start to understand.”

Back on the minibus from Petra, sweat dripped off my elbows. It was hotter than a camel’s armpit, and I was melting into a pool of annoyance. Then, finally, the border! I rushed off the bus and headed for the checkpoint terminal. I turned around just in time to see my mother face-plant on the asphalt. Hard. I bolted toward her, terrified.

She bounced up. Her knee was bleeding and her ego was bruised, but she laughed it off, refusing help from the men that she had charmed moments before. Mom was fine—but I was emotional. Embarrassed. Not by my mother, but by my childish behavior: I couldn’t discuss political differences without getting upset. Hell, I couldn’t even listen to the opposite side without heat rising into my cheeks. I had spent the ride stewing, tainting our adventure with irritated sighs and curt words. Then I ditched her at the first possible moment, only to watch helplessly as she tripped and fell.

I helped her back into the bus as she pretended her knee didn’t hurt. We held hands the entire way to Jerusalem.

West Bank Wall in Bethlehem

West Bank Wall in Bethlehem

Photo by Shilo Urban

The next morning we traveled to the Dead Sea with Alon, a lapsed Orthodox Jew. In his former life, he purified himself in a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. After losing his religion, he now immerses himself daily in the saltwater lake. “It gives me strength,” he explained.

Hazy sunlight bounced off the brilliant blue water. Beachgoers slathered themselves from top to bottom with the tarlike mud. My mother stayed on shore with her bandaged knee, but I joined the body-painting party with the bliss of a little girl making mud pies. Digging deep to reach the lakebed’s layer of silt, I covered myself in the slippery black sludge. I waded out farther and farther into the Dead Sea until my legs floated up in front of me. Abandoned by gravity, I hovered between earth and sky, a tiny floating speck in an ancient land. There were no boundaries, no walls, no politics. I thought about my mom. How many more moments will we share? How many will I waste being pissed off about politics?

I emerged from the water feeling like a freshly baptized believer, wide awake after a spiritual slap across the face. I joined my mother in the shade at “The Lowest Bar in the World” where, over a shared strawberry slushy, we talked. About everything—even Trump.

For her, my mother explained, he was a breath of fresh air. Beliefs like hers—which he trumpeted—once helped to build America. Hard work is preferable to government dependence. Humans value things they earn more than things they are given for free. A moral life is superior to thoughtless hedonism. Now she saw those beliefs were being shouted down as out of touch. She felt she had spent years having her ideals undermined, labeled small-minded and stupid. She was tired of hearing her faith derided by people who preach religious tolerance. Tired of having her southern drawl ridiculed by people who wouldn’t dream of mocking an immigrant’s accent. My mother despised many of Trump’s words—but she hoped he would wake up the hypocrites, shake up the D.C. dynasties, and make business deals to improve the economy.

I could feel the screams of “BULLSHIT!” bubbling up inside my brain, propelled toward my lips by a thousand reasons why Trump was a disaster. Why his fear-based politics would provoke division and push America backward. How this unfit charlatan was exploiting the worst of human nature for personal gain. People had laughed at my southern accent too when I moved away from Texas, so much so that I made a conscious effort to lose it. But having your accent mocked was a far cry from seeing your family deported or your brother shot in the street. I thought, I’m right, you’re wrong, and I know it.

But the words never made it out of my mouth. Maybe it was just full of strawberry slushy. Maybe my righteous anger had been doused by the Dead Sea. I didn’t agree at all, but I didn’t lash out either. I just listened.

On the last day of the trip, we stood in Bethlehem at the forbidding West Bank wall that divides Israelis from Palestinians and craned our necks upward at the ugly guard towers looming overhead. The long concrete barrier was covered in colorful graffiti, but there was no masking its ominous energy. We’d bought two cans of spray paint from a store, which, affiliated with the political dissident and graffiti artist Banksy, encourages visitors to make their marks on the wall.

“Imagine living next to this,” my mother whispered. “It’s so sad.” I nodded in agreement.

We would agree often in the following months. Not about politics—we would probably never agree about that. But we could agree to listen. As the election ripped America in half and turmoil spilled from the seam, we learned to listen to each other without anger or tears. Most of the time.

But that moment at the West Bank wall, everything was silent. I handed my mom a can of spray paint and together we wrote: NO WALLS.

>>Next: Sourcing Syrian Delicacies in a Time of Crisis at Sahadi’s

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