A few weeks ago, I stood by Abraham's tomb in Hebron during the recitation of the Amidah.
It was an awesome moment, to be at the resting place of the first Jew on earth while hearing the liturgy, and it came at the end of an extraordinary journey, one that had challenged the assumptions I had set out with. My journey was through Palestine. I was travelling with a literary festival.
The invitation had immediately appealed. The Palestine situation is so much at the centre of contemporary Jewish life that I was keen to see it for myself. I was nervous, of course. All the voices of my education, all the years of news footage - charred car bodies, masked gunmen, wailing crowds, photographers pushed back as stretchers are rushed into ambulances - told me to be scared.
The first revelation of the trip changed that. It was so obvious, so bound to be true, that I'm almost ashamed to admit what it was: Palestinians are normal people. Unlike the turbulent, vengeful individuals I had been expecting, I encountered warm, rational, intelligent human beings, concerned for their families and struggling with a difficult situation.
Moreover, I personally didn't encounter a whiff of antisemitism. People spoke about the settlers or the army, never about "the Jews." In fact, to my great surprise, some spoke about missing living together with Jews. In many places, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example, that had been the situation for centuries. To get over the invisible barrier of fear and find real people, great hospitality and humanity, was a wonderful discovery, one that filled me with hope. But increasingly over the following days what I was seeing caused anguish.
The great benefit of being there yourself is that it releases you from the endless to-and-fro of argument about the situation. You can see what is happening, the facts on the ground, facts that can't be contradicted by any argument from either side. What you see is that there are a huge number of illegal settlements within Palestinian territory and that the wall is in the wrong place.
The settlements are shocking in their scale. They are easy to spot because they are always on the tops of hills and are reinforced. Some, like those in a ring around Nablus, are so far into territory necessary and promised for a viable Palestinian state as to make that future seem impossible.
What can be done with these armed fundamentalist inhabitants who would rather kill than move? Settler Judaism is hard for me to comprehend. It seems to lack all the moral and intellectual depth, the subtlety and sensitivity, of the Judaism I am proud to have grown up in. Full of messianic fervour, indifferent to pain, soaked in violence, it privileges the one commandment to settle over the other six hundred and twelve. That they have been tolerated and supported in pursuing this activity, which seriously damages the chances of a two-state solution, is mystifying to me.
In Bethlehem, you see the placement of the wall. Nine metres high it rises just beyond the last house, wrapped so tightly around the little town, severing it from the landscape, that natural population growth can be expected to produce extreme overcrowding. At certain points you can see over the wall to olive groves that formerly supported a large number of Bethlehemites and that now they can't reach. An Israeli law states that land "abandoned" for seven years becomes state property. Trapped inside the wall, they wait for this to happen.
If the security rationale for the wall was the only one, it would be in a different place, running along the green line, and it would be continuous. It remains possible to get around the wall. Impoverished Palestinian labourers do this regularly to find manual work within Israel. Standing there, seeing where it is, it is plain that the construction of the wall has been in part a land-grab.
Seeing, too, the frightening checkpoints, and Hebron settlements built directly over the remaining Palestinians in the old city, over whom rubbish and urine are thrown down, I came away with a new understanding of why so many Jews within Israel and the diaspora are protesting against current Israeli government policies. For myself, the words of William Blake came to mind: opposition is true friendship.