Getting A First Hand Look At Israel, Palestinian Territories

In mid-June, 25 students from the University of Minnesota traveled with Minnesota Hillel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in search of a better understanding of one of the most controversial places in the world – and, as of the last few years, topics on campus.

The goal of the trip was simple: Understand what everyday life is like for Israelis and Palestinians by meeting local community members, politicians, tour guides, and journalists, to get a first-hand sense of the diversity of the region and the nuances within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As David Brog, executive director of the trip’s funding foundation told me: “When students go to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to learn the facts for themselves, we hope they return with enough knowledge to distinguish myths from facts and engage in an honest and meaningful dialogue on these issues. Seeing things for yourself is a powerful tool. We believe there is no better way to learn about what’s actually happening.”

Many University of Minnesota students avoid such dialogue because campus rhetoric is extremely polarizing. It is especially difficult for students without a foundational understanding of the issue. Nevertheless, campus discussions of Israel and Palestine have increasingly personal ramifications for students because of an uptick in anti-Semitism and the ostracizing of Jewish students and groups across the country, which coincides with a movement to isolate and delegitimize Israel’s existence.

Student leaders are often expected to make decisions about Israel and Palestine, despite their lack of requisite knowledge on the topic. Since spring 2016, there have been two divestment campaigns waged in support of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement on our campus (within student government in 2016 and to the entire student population again in 2018 through a ballot referendum) that have called on students to support an over-simplified narrative regarding the conflict, and failed, as University President Eric Kaler stated, “to distinguish between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel and opposition to the existence of Israel.”

Many of the student leaders that have been asked to discuss these issues through student governance systems are ill-equipped to discuss, let alone vote, on the issue given their lack of understanding. As a participant in student government, I was excited by the opportunity to participate in an authentic quest to listen and learn firsthand about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As an involved student on campus and as someone who strongly believes in the power of meaningful engagement, I heard about this trip and immediately knew I wanted to go. I went on the trip with very little knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other than knowing that there are many students on campus on both sides of the issue that come from places of passion, authenticity, and emotional lived experience. It was my personal goal to keep an open mind to all perspectives, and to fully take in this once in a lifetime opportunity while unpacking the material and engaging in dialogue with friends and peers each day.

It’s hard to talk about complex international issues from afar, so the opportunity to be on the ground talking to and learning from the people whose future we are debating offered a unique chance to begin forming informed perspectives that could be used to create dialogue when we are called upon by our fellow students. Michael Turner, a trip participant, had the following to say about his experience and how his perspective was shaped by that experience:

“To hold opinions of great significance, one must investigate them with equally great care. Hearing so many unique perspectives on this trip and having had my sentiments change throughout, I believe that misguided certainty is far more dangerous than patient doubt.”

We began in Tel Aviv, where we had the chance to explore the rich culture and history of the first Hebrew city. We learned about the successes and challenges of the LGBT movement there, as well as visited a local NGO, Save a Child’s Heart, which provides underserved children from around the world with life-saving heart surgeries.

From there, we visited an Israeli community along the Gaza border to learn about how Israelis strive to create community and peace while living in fear of violence. Later that day, we travelled across Israel (traversing nearly the full width of the country took less than an hour) to visit Gush Etzion, the original West Bank settlement bloc. We met with the mayor of Efrat, a town of 13,000 residents that is effectively a suburb of Jerusalem. He spoke to us about his efforts to authentically engage with both Muslim and Jewish members of his immediate and surrounding communities, and the struggle to do so in an age when social media posts and the assumptions and judgement that results makes it more difficult.

Minnesota Hillel Director Benjie Kaplan noted, “I think the mayor’s point about social media and its role in stoking the fires of conflict was extremely important. In a time when the term ‘fake news’ is rampant, it was important to be reminded that sources matter, especially when lives are on the line.”

After leaving Tel Aviv, we spent an enriching few days in Jerusalem. We toured the City of David excavations and heard about the Jewish people’s enduring connection to this land. We also met with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Jerusalemite youth at Kids4Peace (a NGO in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood) and discovered that even here, in the most contested city in the world, kids were working towards peaceful coexistence. Yad VaShem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, where we toured the Church of the Nativity, were two of the most moving experiences of the trip. Though few in our group consider themselves religious, many were overcome with emotion while experiencing the global importance of these historic sites. We concluded our time in Jerusalem exploring the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City.

The second half of our trip started in Palestinian Territories, learning about the challenges Palestinians face and how the conflict manifests itself in everyday life. We traveled to Ramallah where we spent time in a refugee camp and a museum that showcased Yasser Arafat’s presidency and the pursuit of an independent Palestine. Our guide was a local Palestinian citizen who spoke to us about things like his perspective on Hamas and what Palestinians think about the right of return. Knowing that Hamas is a real time threat and significant barrier to negotiations towards peace, hearing locals talk about their stance on Hamas and their role in society was fascinating.

It was crucial to hear from locals because it allowed us to ask questions and get a real-time perspective from someone who lives in the midst of the conflict every day. The museum was particularly powerful, as the quotes and intense imagery used strived to convey the deep trauma that Palestinians face while living under various Israeli controls. While there were some elements of the museum that were arguably problematic such as the glorification of violent acts, I’m glad we toured it because we were doing exactly what we had set out to do: see and learn from multiple perspectives, even if we strongly disagreed.

After our time in Ramallah, we visited Rawabi, a first of its kind planned-city for Palestinians in the West Bank. The urban planning and strategic development involved in the constructing of the city was fascinating. The city itself required investment from the United States and material goods from Israel. This is a example of forces working together to create something positive in the midst of the conflict. It felt like a hopeful step forward.

Overall, I felt like my personal goals were accomplished. While a two-week trip only began to scratch the service of this nuanced conflict, I came away from it feeling a new energy to learn more and educate myself on this conflict that’s not only deeply impacting many people across the world, but that my own government plays a part in. I strongly believe in the importance of being an informed citizen. It’s our responsibility to know what our government is engaged in across the world. The trip broadened perspectives, challenged and questioned perceptions, and most importantly facilitated the meaningful and authentic dialogue we so desperately need more of in this world. It’s a turning point experience that I hope will have positive impacts on our campus for many years to come.