I visited Israel for the second time ever after my first trip in 2003. Both of my trips were thanks to invitations from Yossi Vardi. Yossi is one of the most unique people I know combining almost unlimited humor, compassion, entrepreneurial spirit, generosity, creativity and influence. Whatever Yossi tells me to do, I try to do. He'd been inviting me to his Kinnernet camp for years and I was finally able to make it this year.
The last time I visited Israel, I had never been to the Middle East. This time, having had a bit more experience in the Middle East and having just been to Qatar for the Al Jazeera annual forum where the main topic of discussion was Gaza, I was able to experience Israel with more context.
Kinnernet was held on the Kinneret kibbutz. Kinnernet, inspired by Tim O'Reilly's FOO Camp unconference format is like FOO camp except with robots, fire jugglers, lots of power tools and a costume dance gala. I really enjoyed the event - super interesting sessions and great people. The event was like a physical manifestation of all things Yossi.
Yossi and the Garage Geeks also hosted a Creative Commons evening for us at the scrappy and cool Garage Geeks "outdoor auditorium". I was able to meet the CC Israel team and lots of people from the community. Big kudos to Yossi, Garage Geeks and the CC Israel team for organizing this.
Daniel Lubetzky, who was out of town, introduced me to his Israeli and Palestinian One Voice teams. One Voice tries amplify the voice of the silent majority of moderates on both the Israeli and Palestinian communities through volunteers and youth leaders. I was impressed by the quality and thoughtfulness of both teams, but also by the challenge of the fundamentally different contexts of the two communities. Both groups were focused primarily on activities within their own communities, which I think is smart. It's much easier to change yourself than to try to change other people. I'm always reminded of this when I'm in debates about the issues between the Chinese and the Japanese.
I visited Ramallah in the West Bank to meet up with the Palestinian One Voice team. Many people including my travel agent and Israeli friends suggested that it would be difficult to get in or dangerous. I had no trouble at the checkpoints and Ramallah City seemed like a vibrant and interesting place considering the circumstances. I was even treated to the best falafel sandwich I've ever had. :-) Although my trip to Ramallah was really brief, I was able to have nice chat with Nisreen and her One Voice Palestine crew and get a quick tour of Ramallah.
Apparently just the week before my visit, Google had done a workshop in Ramallah which was very well received. The geeks in Ramallah seemed very motivated and in several conversations that I had with both Palestinians and Israelis, the idea of Internet startups based in or involving Palestinians came up as a great way to empower people in the West Bank and Gaza as well as increase communications between Palestinians and Israelis. I totally agree. The Palestinians explained that it was now very difficult or impossible for them to travel outside of the territories and get visa for many countries including the US and many Arab countries. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to not be allowed to travel freely. Luckily, the Internet is not filtered or blocked in Palestine.
I visited Yasser Arafat's tomb with some of my new Palestinian friends and was struck by how deeply they respected him. There was a poem at the tomb about how there was a bit of Yasser Arafat in every Palestinian. Credited with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, Yasser Arafat seemed almost deified. (My apologies if I've mangled the explanation.)
As I was leaving Israel getting my polite, but extremely thorough security examination at Tel Aviv airport which included a full body massage in a private room, I couldn't help pondering how things might be improved in the region. People I met in both communities were extremely warm, friendly and dedicated to peace. However, there appeared to be almost irreconcilable and fundamental differences in what they believed the final solution was. While I met very few extremists, they seemed to continue to have a great deal of influence in their respective communities.
I remembered some words spoken by Shimon Peres at a Brainstorm conference in Aspen in 2002 and wondered if people like Shimon Peres would ever wield enough influence to create peace. I'm not sure how I can help, but I intend to continue to visit the region and increase my ties with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to see if I can contribute to peace in some way.
Following are some of the notes I took from the talk by Shimon Peres in 2002 which he gave just hours after another bomb had been detonated in an Israeli University.
"I have no hatred in my heart for the Palestinians."
"We are just two tragedies meeting in the same place. I hope that this doesn't turn into a third tragedy."
"What can you learn from History? Very little... History was written with red ink, with bloodshed. We should educate our children how to imagine, not how to remember."