Over winter break, two of Capital’s own traveled to two different, feuding Middle Eastern countries: Israel and Palestine. The oft-talked about conflict floods news channels, but it can be a rare opportunity to experience the politically tense land first-hand. Austin Reid, junior, traveled to Israel on a Birthright trip, and Alex Anderson, sophomore, traveled to Palestine to teach English. Continue reading to hear their stories.
Rarely is anyone presented with the opportunity to visit a foreign country with around 40 people their age for free, so when I first heard about Birthright, I knew I had to apply.
For ten days, I found myself traveling all around Israel with 38 American students and recent college graduates, eight Israelis, and three professional staff members.
Coming from Capital, where for all intents and purposes I am the de facto face of Judaism, to an area where, for the first time in my life, I found myself in the majority as a Jew was very liberating.
For ten days I was free from the almost daily questions and comments I encounter about Judaism and from the micro-aggressions and attitudes many students on this campus, sometimes perhaps unintentionally, present towards Jews.
For ten days I finally felt like a normal person.
I also was amazed by how much I had in common with the Israelis who joined our tour bus halfway through the trip. We all watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, and had similar taste in dress. At times, I could have thought that these peers were just additional OSU students who joined the tour late.
Yet there were some differences between us. Sadly, my new friends could not be university students at this time in their life. While I had the ability to directly enroll in college, these young Israelis were drafted into the army right after high school.
In addition to learning we shared the same taste in music, I also heard what it is like to rescue a family from a house hit by rocket fire sent by militants in Gaza. I heard about friends and family who were lost in terrorist attacks.
I also experienced many amazing new sights and senses, ranging from the first modern Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, to ancient Roman ruins, to the empty expanses of the Negev desert. I was surprised that a country roughly the same size as New Jersey could possess so many contrasting environments.
High-end malls could be found within blocks of traditional markets. Modern, eco-friendly cars flew by on roads, and large solar power plants alongside nomadic Bedouin encampments could be seen from the highways.
Within minutes, one could pass by a Christian pilgrimage group and Orthodox Jews asking passersby to wrap tefillin, all while hearing the Islamic call to prayer sound from nearby mosques. I even saw advertisements for drag shows and LGBTQ pride flags flying from city balconies.
I saw true wonders, such as fertile farms blossoming straight out of the rocky desert, but I also observed signs that suggested the hostile neighborhood Israel finds itself in.
From the Golan, where yellow signs reading “Warning Mines” told of entombed relics of Syrian occupation, to bomb shelters in rural Negev villages, it was clear that as peaceful as Israel seemed, threats of danger were not far off.
This is not to say I felt scared to be in Israel at any point. On the contrary, I have never felt safer. Never have I been in a place where the people were filled with so much confidence, warmth, and positivity.
I hope to return to Israel this summer. For those students who are also looking to experience what Israel is truly like for themselves, many programs, including free or heavily subsidized tours, are available.
Jewish students in particular should make a special point to seek out program options. Those looking for more information can contact Austin Reid at email@example.com
My motivation to travel to the West Bank was born from a spirit of inadequacy. When I looked to that region of the world, there was inadequate reason for my fear, inadequate rationality for my prejudice, and inadequate preparation in defending why I feel those ways.
What sealed the deal for me to say “I am going,” was reading Deborah Ellis’s short book “Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak.” In her book, Ellis chronicles the fear and daily burdens of both Palestinian and Israeli children. In my heart, I found myself welling with tears as I read the stories of these Palestinian families having their homes destroyed, crippled by bullet wounds to the lower extremities, scarred by arson attacks, and of course killed. But the children who live with these wounds are what booked my plane ticket.
It was settled. I would travel alone to the West Bank for winter break and teach. I booked my flight, studied Arabic, prepared lesson plans, and readied my heart and mind to be a part of something unlike anything I have ever experienced. I emptied my heart of everything but compassion so that the authenticity of this experience would be enduring and impactful.
The West Bank is beautiful. Rows of olive and pomegranate trees, sprawling grape vines, and beautiful architecture. But all the beauty of the Holy Land is juxtaposed by bullet holes, destroyed walls, crumbling buildings and families, blood stains in the streets, and powerful art on any open canvas.
As I traveled to the West Bank, my first run in with kindness came in the form of a man who ushered me out of the shared van and into his car after I was unable to contact my international coordinator for the program. He later told my boss that he knew the van driver would scam me in dropping me off at a specific location and chose to transport me himself, at no charge.
Another moment of kindness was the fruit seller teaching me the value of each Shekel and helping me learn to navigate and negotiate the market. Every time I walked to class, I heard “Salam Alaikum” meaning “peace be upon you” countless times, followed by an invitation to join these people bidding me peace for tea, coffee, and dinner. On several occasions when time permitted, I accepted these offers that turned into language learning and culture exploration opportunities.
All of my students were adults enrolled in this language program, all of whom were professionals for local NGOs, they were: lawyers, accountants, teachers, PR agents, managers, and so on. I was the youngest person in the room when teaching. I taught very bright students, some of which are trying to become ambassadors for Palestine. We wrote poetry on peace, and expository essays exploring what it’s like to live within walls, and they spoke of the dreams and speculations about the world beyond their borders might be like.
But there was trauma as well.
The Israeli soldier who threw a raw chicken head at me, striking my shoulder and leaving a streak of avian blood on my favorite shirt. Turning to look, I found my reflection in the iridescent scope of his assault rifle, the most chilling sound of him unlocking his gun. Imagine the community of people who are familiar enough with this sound to be undaunted as they live their lives between the crosshairs.
The Israeli-led raid of my neighborhood that led to the loss of the baby my host mother was carrying as she dove for cover to avoid a shock grenade that landed in our courtyard.
The woman and two men shot at checkpoint while trying to enter their neighborhood.
The three men I watched fall like rag dolls after three shots cut the cheerful new year air at a checkpoint. They were brothers, we later found out, and their bodies have not been returned.
It was an extremely special opportunity to be in the Middle East alone, exploring a corner of the world wrecked by heartache and division. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to meet the people I did, to inspire and be inspired, and to continue spreading education.