On Friday, August 7, I traveled across the world to Israel to spend a week immersing myself in Israeli culture while gaining insight to the current political, social, and strategic challenges of the region. With a group of 14 other student government leaders from across the United States, hosted by a group of Israeli college students, I journeyed throughout Israel to learn leadership through a variety of experiences as a participant of Project InSiGht. Throughout this post, I will outline some of my top educational experiences I had in the country while outlining some of my takeaways. (See "My Israel Top 7" to read about my best overall moments and favorite elements of my trip.)
As student leaders and future business, political, and social leaders, I believe it is important for us to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can where we are able to learn something new about the world and ourselves. The week was filled with varying perspectives, including hearing from officials who were vital in the implementation of the wall between areas of the West Bank and Israel in Jerusalem, speaking with a woman living in the Gaza strip, getting a lecture from the chairman of a committee within the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), and hearing from an Arab-Israeli (meaning a Muslim living in Israel) boy who is condemned for his Zionist (meaning he believes in the establishment of a Jewish state) beliefs. Each of these perspectives, along with all of the other perspectives we heard from, as well as speaking with the Israeli students, I was able to gain such a unique insight that I am incredibly grateful to have been able to experience.
Beersheba (Be'er Sheva)
The trip began with a quick drive from the airport to Beersheba to meet with the Israeli students of Ben Gurion University who created the program. We met up at one of the student's houses and began some brief introductions. I stayed in the flat of Yossi, who was 23 and lived with his fiancée. He studies electrical engineering and works at a high-tech company, an emerging market within Israel. One of the prominent features of Israelis is that they are extremely hospitable. When they offer you a drink, you cannot say, "No, thank you." When they are offering you a drink, you are going to be getting a drink and you are expected to drink it (which is not a bad thing)!
After this home stay gave us a true feel for life in Israel, we began the first official day of our conference at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This university reminded me of Wagner in its mission to create student leaders who are civically engaged and take part in an interdisciplinary approach to their education. At the university, which was one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever visited, we heard from Dr. Col. Moshe Elad, a distinguished educator who specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its core issues. He provided much insight into the conflict, giving a very unbiased, clear history of the region focusing on the changing Middle East and the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We also got to meet and speak with the President of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Rivka Carmi, who is the first woman to serve as the president of any Israeli university. She gave brief insights into what it was like being in the town of Beersheba as it was experiencing rocket fire from Gaza during the summer 2014 conflict.
One of the coolest things we experienced in the Negev was touring the Ayalim Students Village in Ashalim. They take 'Learning Community' to a whole other level. These villages are built by students who live off of the land, each taking a role in the operation of the village, all while attending classes and obtaining a degree from Ben-Gurion University. The goal of these villages is to be an efficient alternate lifestyle for those living in Israel. As they are student built and maintained, they are very low-cost, something quite attractive for students in the region.
The Gaza Envelope
"Being different does not mean to hate."
I won't lie--when driving to the Gaza Envelope and being briefed about the '15 seconds' we had to find shelter if we heard sirens indicating a rocket attack, I was quite nervous. Driving into the village of Netiv Hassara, which is one of the closest Israeli villages to the Gaza Strip, seeing security checkpoints and armed guards was very unsettling. However, once we crossed into the village and saw that the people lived a normal life, I was able to calm my nerves. In the village, we arrived at the home of Roni Keidar who works with Other Voice, a non-profit volunteer initiative seeking a civilian solution for the conflict of the region specifically for those in the towns and villages boarding the Gaza Strip. Prior to the deepening of the conflict, Roni lived in Egpyt, where her daughter attended an international school and developed a friendship with a Palestinian child. It took 3 years for two adults, the children's mothers, to forge a relationship over their children's friendship. That friendship has developed into a partnership, where her friend serves as a voice for life inside of the Gaza Strip, calling into Roni's line to share some insight into life in the region.
We also had the privilege of hearing from two soldiers who work in the Public Affairs Division of the IDF, who gave us insights into the humanitarian aspects of the IDF. This was probably one of the most valuable sessions which I took part in. Hearing about how the Israeli government supplies and allows for transfers of supplies and people across the Gaza boarder was interesting to say the least. Much of what we heard about was that the Israeli government needed to give the people of Gaza "something to lose." If people are sitting around all day with limited food and water, limited electricity, in war-torn communities, they will not be able to thrive as people. Which is why many agree that the humanitarian work of the IDF and the Israeli government to help to rebuild the community will ultimately lead to a better lifestyle for those in Gaza.
S'derot (in the Gaza Envelope)
Another educational element of my trip was my tour of S'derot, which was one of the most frequent victims of rocket attacks from Gaza during recent operations. What I found the most captivating about this area was how the people are able to incorporate bomb shelters and the constant fear of attacks and a limited time (15 seconds) to find shelter into their daily lives. However, as shown in the photo below, you see three iconic elements of the community that speak volumes. The caterpillar you see is a bomb shelter on a playground at the kindergarten. In the background there is a construction building, showing that even with frequent attacks, there are still people moving to the area, showing the perseverance of the people.
The West Bank
Easily one of the most beautiful regions in the world is the West Bank. Comprised of Israeli settlements and Palestinian towns, the region is divided into 3 areas, A, B, and C, as part of the Oslo Accords. Two of the areas are secured by Israel in security and civil administration, while Area A is governed solely by the Palestinian Authority. This was one of the biggest surprises for me, as I had no idea this was how the region was operated. I expected total separation of the people and the towns, but as we drove through a Palestinian city, I was told by Israelis that there are business transactions between the two sides taking place in many of the shops and restaurants. However, when visiting a winery in a small Israeli settlement in the West Bank, the women we spoke with who owned the winery, which is surrounded by Palestinian towns, and said that they have zero interactions. My assumption is that it's more of a case-by-case, region-by-region situation, having heard from multiple perspectives.
After visiting this country, I can honestly say I have grown as a person. It truly opens your eyes to the importance of perspective. Using my insight to the relevance of perspective in this conflict, it allows for a stronger understanding of social issues within out own nation.
Please note that the views expressed in this post are solely my own.