Judaic Studies

UNIV1001 Spends Spring Break Immersed in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Students, Professor David Jacobson, and Tour Guide Ilan Bloch on a hilltop overlooking Israel's Negev region.

With the generous support of a Global Experiential Learning and Teaching (GELT) Grant from the Office of Global Engagement and additional funds provided by the Program in Judaic Studies, the twelve Brown juniors and seniors in my seminar, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Narratives,” spent seven days beginning shortly before Spring Break touring the land both peoples claim to be their own and hearing a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli voices expressing their understanding of the history of the conflict and the hopes and fears they experience after so many decades of fighting.

During the weeks leading up to the trip, the seminar was devoted to exploring the narratives of the conflict, the conflicting stories that each side tells each other and the world about how the conflict began, why it has persisted, and whether there is any viable way to resolve it. The sources of these narratives included historical documents, works of fiction, and feature films. Well-equipped with knowledge of the conflict, the students greatly deepened their understanding during the week of the trip, and the new insights they discovered have informed their continued study of the conflict upon their return to campus.

Highlights of the trip included a bus tour around Jerusalem led by the NGO City of Peoples, dedicated to educating the public about the impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the city that each people claims as its capital; a walking tour of the religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims; a visit to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem to view the graves of Israeli soldiers who died in battle and of prominent Israeli leaders, as well as the tomb of Theodor Herzl, seen by Israelis as the founding father of Zionism; visits to the tomb of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a museum dedicated to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah on the West Bank; a visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum; a tour of Lifta, a village abandoned by Palestinians in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; a visit to Arab Bedouin towns in Israel’s Negev region, where students learned about ongoing land disputes between the Israeli government and local residents; a tour of parts of the ancient port city of Jaffa and the modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv; and dinner at the home of a Palestinian family. At lunch in Ramallah students had the opportunity to meet and speak with Sami Jarbawi ’12, a Palestinian who worked with me on the UTRA in which the course was designed.

Conversations with Israeli and Palestinian speakers provided a fascinating exposure to conflicting world views between these enemy peoples and within each people. Two Israeli political figures analyzed the Israeli parliamentary election which took place right before we arrived: Dani Dayan, a right-wing supporter of the re-election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Mosi Raz, who ran on the ticket of the left-wing Meretz Party. Bob Lang, a religious West-Bank Jewish settler in Efrat, shared with us the settler narrative which supports the right of Jews to settle in the area known as the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, while Eliaz Cohen, a religious West-Bank Jewish settler in Kfar Etzion, told of his vision of how Israeli and Palestinian national aspirations could be achieved in the West Bank without anyone having to be uprooted. Riman Barakat of the think tank Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI) in Jerusalem also told of a similar plan her organization is developing. Reverend Alex

Awad of East Jerusalem told about the unique experiences of the Christian Palestinian minority, while Islamic Scholar Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway of Al Quds University in Jerusalem spoke passionately about the need to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but he also made clear that he believed national identities were human constructs and therefore long-standing arguments about the legitimacy of Israeli and Palestinian rights to the land were beside the point.

Students learned of the national tragedies that continue to haunt both peoples, the Holocaust for Israelis and the Nakba defeat of 1948 for the Palestinians. Holocaust survivor Rina Quint told the amazing story of her survival as a child in a concentration camp and declared that a central message of the Holocaust is that there must be a State of Israel that can serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews. Amal Jadou of the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry told of her moving experience going with her father to see the home in West Jerusalem that he left during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Vivian Rabia narrated the story of how a house in the Israeli town of Ramle abandoned by a Palestinian family in the 1948 War was turned into a preschool to serve Palestinian children.

Students were particularly moved by their meetings with Palestinians and Israelis who are trying to bridge the social, cultural, and political gaps between the two peoples. Israeli Rami Elhanan told of the Parents Circle Family Forum that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Nomika Zion, a resident of the Israeli town of Sderot on the border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which has suffered greatly in Palestinian rocket attacks during the past several years, informed the group of an Israeli organization called Other Voice which makes regular contact by telephone with residents of the Gaza Strip. Vivian Rabia of Ramle told of the challenges she faces directing a Palestinian-Israeli summer day camp outside of Jerusalem. Rabbi Daniel Roth of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution told of his efforts to get Jews to rethink their views of their Arab enemies.

The trip was organized by MEJDI Tours, which specializes in dual-narrative trips to Israel/Palestine.  The tour was led by Palestinian guide Jalal Ghazi Awad and Israeli guide Ilan Bloch, who shared their extensive expertise and at times demonstrated the contested nature of Palestinian and Israeli narratives by arguing openly about how to evaluate the ways each people has acted in the past.

It is clear from all that we saw and heard that for the most part neither Israelis nor Palestinians are currently optimistic about any breakthrough toward peace in the immediate future. Perhaps the starkest assessment of the situation was expressed by Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, who declared in reference to the possibility of a resolution of the conflict: “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, I don’t even see the tunnel.” At the same time, we learned, the pessimism that prevails among both Palestinians and Israelis is constantly challenged by those who attempt to bring together people from both sides of the divide and those who dream of alternative solutions.

Students enthusiastically appreciated the rare opportunity that they had to participate in this informative study tour. As Jason Ginsberg ’16 observed: “Reading a textbook is one thing, but this program truly offered me the opportunity to live that textbook—to see the issues in the land as a class in real time. It is a rare gift to be able to engage with material in this way.” Students came back from the trip with new insights, and in some cases the trip radically changed their views of the conflict. “To say that the course and the study tour transformed the way I think about the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict would be an understatement,” declared Hannah Acheson Field ’15. Joao Nascimento ‘15 saw the study tour as “an opportunity to unlearn my previously entrenched ideas about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as much as it was a chance to better understand and see for myself the myriad narratives that animate their dispute.” Reem Rayef ’15 spoke of the impact meeting the people of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had on her: “This trip complicated everything I knew—or thought I knew—about the conflict, by providing us with the invaluable opportunity to make our course readings come alive in their natural context.”

Submitted by Professor David Jacobson