Beni Brak – by Matt Egbert

Starting off our first full day in Israel, we began the trip with an exposure to an entirely different cultural community that we had experienced before, the ultra-orthodox community in the city of Bnei Brak. What makes Bnei Brak so astounding is that it is a world completely of its own. I knew that going into the city would be a huge culture shock; however, it was nowhere near what I envisioned. I found the environment fascinating in the sense of how strictly everyone followed and conformed to the religious principles and how devoted they were in keeping with them. One huge indicator for me today regarding how committed they are was despite the temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, the men of Bnei Brak were still rocking the suit and hat combination. So although using electricity was off the table for the weekend because it’s shabbat, dying of heatstroke was not.

One thing that we learned today about the ultra-orthodox culture was the concept of using a matchmaker to create marital pairings for Jewish men and women. Through them men and women find their partners who they may very well grow to love and these matchmakers have proven to have higher success rates than match.com, jdate, Christian mingle, and tinder combined. One thing that I found really interesting about this, is that when we typically think about the practice of marriage, we think about being married to the one we love and going into the marriage knowing that we do love that other person. Also on top of the matchmaker’s finding the finds and catching the catches, there is also another component to this and that is through a blood test. With these tests the matchmakers are able to see whether or not biologically the candidates can match, as in if they have any predispositions towards disease and such. And when the tests are over, the matchmaker swipes right on the two and they then set up a time to meet for say an hour or two and then a year later they marry. And the two are to begin their new life as newlyweds.

Another thing that was really interesting to learn about was the concept of trade and charity. This concept in Bnei Brak sufficiently is that when someone in the community does not have the needed funds to obtain something that they need, they are actually able to get said item for free. Such items can range from kippahs to sheets and blankets for a wedding dowry. This was such an interesting concept because the people in Bnei Brak understand that these are items which members of their community need in order to maintain their spiritual, marital or even daily lives and thus it was really interesting to see that the community understood and was willing to help another when in need.

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Walling off Misconceptions

“I came to Israel and found Palestine” was a beautiful remark made by one of my classmates, Tanner, prior to departure from Israel. It is this remark I feel encapsulates many of our takeaways from our twelve-day journey to this controversial land, including my own. However, in contrast to Tanner, I feel as if I found Israel during my brief stay. For years I have always known and kept Palestine close to my heart and found it difficult uttering the words “Israel” out of my mouth when telling people where I would be traveling. It felt as if by recognizing the state I was contributing to the continued neglect of the Palestinian narrative and people. To be honest, a held a lot of resentment and even hatred towards the Israeli state and all it encompassed including the history, language, and even people. I saw it not only at the expense of the Palestinians but also a continuation of things stolen from them; land, food, traditions, and even language as a significant amount of Arabic has been incorporated in modern day Hebrew. I lumped all aspects of Israel together and I had little to no desire to tell them apart. All that mattered to me was the shared responsibility of oppressing the Palestinian people within their borders.

Despite my set views I was compelled to come on the trip. I carried some guilt with me in traveling to a state in which a majority of my friends would never be able to visit, many Palestinian in origin. However, I felt a need to go. I need to see the land that I dedicated years following on social media, discussing with my friends, and studying in school. I yearned for the pages, videos, and discussions to come to life — I had to see it for myself.

I saw it.

I saw glimpses of the ugliness of occupation: the harassment of Palestinians by IDF soldiers, the beautiful settlements across the street from neglected villages, the cement separation wall and the look of defeat and sadness in Palestinian eyes.

What I didn’t expect to see was hope.

I found hope hidden in what I soon knew as the cleavages of Israeli society. I found hope in educating myself that like any population, no Israeli is the same. I found hope in afternoon talks with activists working to end the occupation who described acts of the Israeli government as “inherently un-Jewish” and against what it meant for them to be an Israeli.

I found hope in understanding.

I understood the fears of the population, the history of struggle similar to that of the Palestinians, and the attachment to the homeland we now know as the state of Israel. It became clear that what has always been Palestinian has become very much Israeli as well. Over the twelve days it became much harder to compartmentalize between the two.

I find comfort in this new state of confusion. No conflict is black and white, nor should it be. We must to get lost in the grey before we can find the light.

 

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Exploring Israel

When I first decided to travel to Israel for a class on the Arab Israeli conflict I was totally unsure of what to expect. I had nothing more than a basic knowledge of the conflict and a desire travel and to learn more about it. After having taken the course I would recommend it to anyone who even considering it and I will probably badger people who haven’t.  I honestly found the trip to be simultaneously one of the most educational and enjoyable experiences I have ever had.

We were only in Israel for 13 days but I feel like I easily learned a semesters worth of information.  What is so engaging about this trip is that almost every learning experience is hands on or interactive.  This is a conflict between two peoples whose identity and history have left their holy sites and residences overlapped and intertwined and placed them at odds.  To understand the extent of this entangling it is incredibly helpful to actually travel to Israel and see it first hand. Understanding why the wailing wall and the Dome of the Rock can not be separated or governed spereately becomes clear when one stands at the base of the Wailing wall and sees how it is one of the walls holding up the floors of the Dome of the Rock.  Understanding what is meant by “Israeli settlement” is much easier when being driven through an Israeli settlement butyl over twenty years ago that is home to over forty thousand people.  Being able to speak with native Israelis’ and Palestinians from all sides of the political spectrum really helped us all develop a fuller and deeper understanding of the conflict.  

It was also an incredibly fun trip.  It is trip centered around a tense conflict and at times the seriousness of the topic did weigh on the group but mostly the trip was just an incredible and positive experience.  The course is designed for students to get a better understanding of the culture and feel of the place they are visiting.  We explored old fashioned markets and haggled for the best deals on hamsa wall hangings and packs of post cards, we ate at hole in the wall restaurants, in open air cafes and by the harbor, we traveled to beautiful holy sites, famous gardens and we swam in the Sea of Galilee just for the fun of it.

I am incredibly glad that I went on this trip I felt that it truly challenged and changed my world perspective all while managing to be both educational and incredibly enjoyable (which we all know is no mean feat). I would recommend this course to anyone and everyone who likes to travel and intellectual debate.

The last night in Israel.

 

 

 

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My Expedition in the Holy Land

I would have never particularly imagined to find myself on the coast of Israel, let alone in the West Bank. It would have maybe been a strange dream at most. After experiencing this trip, I am left with so much knowledge of a conflict and a part of the world that was formerly unknown to me. I took a chance to go to Israel, and it has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.

Prior to departure, I only knew what my Jewish friends and my family members told me about Israel. I had no idea what occupation really meant, or that the territory that is currently the state of Israel was once called Palestine. I have learned the history behind the birth of Israel, a dark history that often goes ignored. I’ve learned about Israel’s transformation since 1948 as well as the experiences of Palestinians expelled from the land since then. I’ve come to realize the many different political cleavages exist inside and outside of Israel, and how it is not just Arab vs Jew. I’ve seen the occupation with my own eyes, and I now know that settlements in the West Bank are not tents but often entire cities. I have spoken with rightwing Israelis and leftwing Israelis, secular Jews and non-secular Jews, Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab-Israelis, and more. I have swum in the Mediterranean, made new friends, and met incredible Israelis and Palestinians whose will to speak up and educate has inspired me.

I am left with the urge to return and to learn more about the conflict, because even after taking a course on site, there is still so much to learn. I now find myself wanting to examine the experience of Birthright Jews who take trips to Israel, or to learn more about the settlements that are popping up all around the West Bank. I want to further understand how Israel can keep such tight security and I want to know more details on what it is like to live under occupation. This course has been a catalyst for further exploration and understanding, and I think it is safe to say that my time in Israel has shaped my future. Without a doubt I would take up this experience again if given the opportunity.

I highly recommend this course to anyone looking for a unique and enlightening adventure. This course will allow you to experience Middle Eastern culture and cuisine while understanding one of the most complex and important conflicts the modern world has ever known. The experience is so fascinating in that the conflict is visible around you as you study it. It’s not in the past, and it is arguably more dire and complicated than ever. I am confident in saying that this has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest course that I have ever taken with the most amazing professor. Get ready to realize. Get ready to come to Israel and find Palestine.

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Eye Opening

I always wanted to go Israel because I grew up hearing about my  Zionist father’s experience in the country. He would vividly recall the roads, the buildings he worked on, the food he ate, and the people he met. The most important memory he has of Israel is praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I felt connected to the country through his stories. As I grew older,  I found out about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to learn more about the conflict because my father never fully talked about the Palestinians. When I would question him about them, he would attempt to deflect.

When I found out about this course, I knew this was an opportunity of a life time. It was not every day that a college student gets the chance to visit the region and learn about a conflict that is one of the most documented in the world.

What I learned from this course was life changing. I always assumed that the Jewish settlements in the West Banks were trailer parks with an Israeli flag over them. This is not the case for those we observed on the trip. The settlements we saw were cities with institutions and infrastructure. I also  learned about the tensions between Eastern European origin Jews or Ashkenazi and non-Eastern European origin Jews or Mizrahi. Mizrahi Jews are socially, politically, and economically  less than Ashkenazi Jews. However, both are socially, politically, and economically better off than Palestinians.

What we learned about the Palestinian community was truly eye opening. We talked to several Palestinians from various places in Israel proper and Jerusalem about the situation on their community.  I did not know that the Palestinian community had restrictions on movement unless they had special permission or permits. I also did not that they severally  racially profiled from check outs, being randomly stopped and searched by the Israeli military, border guard and police.

Before this trip for the most part I knew my Zionist father’s point of view on Israel. Now having visited the country and learned more about the conflict I want to go back.  I am left after this trip with a sense of wanting to learn more about the conflict and explore areas that we did not cover , like foreign guest workers and foreign military  volunteers in 1948 war.  This experience meant everything to me.

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I’ll Be Back!

Wow. Words cannot even describe what an incredible experience this trip has been. But I’ll try! Coming into the program I really didn’t know what to expect. I am a Global Studies major with Multi-Language and I’ve always been fascinated by international relations. I come from a predominately Jewish town and I have always heard the Israeli narrative up until a certain extent. Many of my friends have grown up going to Jewish Day schools and going to temple and sometimes I would be invited to a shabbat dinner here and there. Overall I had no real idea what was happening in Israel/Palestine so I figured why not go and find out! Signing up for the course I had no real idea what the trip would entail  I figured that I would just find out once I got into the country. Once the group landed, we hit the ground running. Our schedule was packed each day with information, tours and speakers.

How can you even begin to tackle the Israeli Palestinian conflict in 12 days you might ask? Let me tell you how. Each day we would embark to a different part of Israel that dealt with one branch of the conflict. Yes, in hindsight the problem seems to focus on the Israelis and Palestinians fighting over territory, but it is so much more. Not only did we study the conflict but then we delved into the cleavages within Israeli society. We learned about the Orthodox Jews, the settlers and the secular Jews. We spoke to a variety of different people advocating for different organizations. Each day was a different experience from the last, our tours packed with information that sometimes took a couple days to process.

I believe that the phrase “The more you know the less you understand” is very applicable to this trip. Every time we would unearth a different topic or idea it would leave us with new questions. It is so hard to fully understand the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians but through different narratives it becomes clearer. Because of this trip I feel confident about my opinion on the conflict. My information is credible because I experienced someone sharing their life story of what like is like for them under the occupation. I have been to places mentioned on the news, I have seen with my own eyes the extent of Israeli control.

People need to take a risk and get out of their comfort zone. It’s unfortunate that many people believe that Israel is a dangerous place, because having been there it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have never felt safer in a country, so much so that I want to go back and study abroad in Tel-Aviv. I am fascinated by the conflict and the underlying issues within, that I want to continue studying.

The experiences I have gained from the trip are unforgettable. We had an incredible group of students on this trip who made the experience worthwhile. The dynamic in the group was fluid and fun! If this course was offered again I would sign up for it in a heartbeat. I would take it over and over again because there is always more to learn. Taking this course helped spur on my enjoyment of learning so much so that I would go back today. There is nothing that I would change about this course and I can only recommend it to anyone who will listen.

 

It’s only been two days and I already want to be back.

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Of Israel and Palestine

I’ve never really been much good at explaining why I did something, or inclined to talk about what I got out of doing it, but I suppose this trip is worthy of an exception to those tendencies.

My reasons for going on this trip were eclectic, to say the least, but for the most part I saw the trip as a way to earn an extra credit while travelling somewhere I had never been, studying a relevant real-world issue under a professor I think highly of, and getting to spend the better part of two weeks arguing about large scale morality, justice, and pragmatism (this is my idea of a good time, maybe I’m a touch eccentric).

I will be the first to admit that I am a fiercely opinionated individual, and that my beliefs almost certainly tint much of what I see in the world, but I try my best to absorb new information and allow it to shape my opinions rather than have my perception prejudiced by my beliefs. I will also confess that, having previously studied the conflict inside and outside the classroom, I came into the trip with the confidence (alternatively arrogance) that I already understood the basics of what we were studying, and the mindset that I was there to talk to the people who actually lived this struggle, hear their insights, and witness personally the circumstances under which the people of Israel and Palestine lived. In these regards I was not disappointed in the slightest.

During our time in Israel and Palestine we did not speak simply to Israelis and Palestinians; We spoke to soldiers and activists, to settlers and the Bedouin. We spoke to students and the elderly. We spoke to rabbis and to politicians. In our two weeks we learned about the intricacies of both the Israeli people and the Palestinians, two peoples themselves divided and fragmented by the questions of security, peace, and justice.

Our trip was more than just conversation, though. To understand Israel and Palestine, conjoined twins that they are, one must sit through lengthy checkpoints, witness the sprawling suburban settlements complete with comfortable apartments and swimming pools while two miles away sits a village where people scarcely have enough water to drink, and one must witness the scorched ruins of a bomb blast (or sit through a bomb disposal operation. Not to worry, they’re usually false alarms.)

It is in these experiences and conversations that one can begin to understand Israel and Palestine.

I can honestly say that I wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone who is interested in learning about one of the world’s more relevant and tragically ongoing conflicts, or in the intricacies of nationalist politics in a practical setting. This trip is not for those with experience with Israel and Palestine nor for beginners. This trip is for anyone who is interested and who is willing to have their preconceived notions tested by reality.

P.S. there are fun markets and beaches and good food too.

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Let’s Go Again, Let’s Go Again!

I originally signed up for this course because of my interest in world conflicts and security; as well as to gain insight on one of the longest conflicts in recent history.  Also, as a government major, this was a great way to earn a credit, while abroad, on a very interesting and relevant topic.  With that said, this course was not specific to government majors, as everyone could benefit from learning more about this conflict.

Going into the course, I was looking at it just in that way, as a course.  However, it was much more than that.  Not only did I try some amazing food, see some breathtaking sites (both positive and negative), and create some great new friendships, I learned more about myself.  After seeing some of the oppression that the Palestinians and Bedouins face, I questioned my own values in an attempt to see how I would react in this same situation had I been in the same situation.  This, I feel, gave me a greater perspective on the effects that the conflict had on those involved.  Yes, we did have readings and small assignments along the way, but they were very relevant to the topic for the day.  The readings led into the topic for the day, and we read them.  However, we could have read from a textbook back at SLU.  Without seeing settlements, checkpoints, all of the security forces, and the profiling first hand, we would not have been able to truly get an understanding of what was really going on between the people.

At the beginning, I had a feeling that the conflict was strictly the people of Israel against the people of Palestine, with some peace activists thrown in the mix somewhere.  However, we also looked at the cleavages in Israeli society and how that has had an effect on the conflict.  I had not been aware of this previously.  We talked with activists, settlers,  government officials, fighters turned peace-makers and more.  In doing so, we were able to get the full spectrum of what many different people thought of the conflict and how they faced it.

I would easily sign up for this course a second.  Not just because it was such a great time and valuable learning experience, but because the conflict is not over.  It is not as if we were studying the conflict right after it had been resolved.  We were studying an ongoing conflict that is going to evolve as time progresses, which means there is always more to learn.  Plus, I by no means would consider myself an expert on the conflict.

This was easily one of the best experiences of my life.

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May 29: Final Reflections

As a Government major and Arabic Studies minor and a lover of traveling, this summer course in Israel was automatically an appealing way to gain an extra SLU credit. And to be honest, I went into it thinking of it solely as a class. It turned out, of course, to be so much more. For that reason, I would be ecstatic, to say the least, to go on this trip again.

To give a brief overview, we learned about the development and current dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the many cleavages in Israeli politics and society, and how those affect the conflict. More specifically, we focused on the two main opposing narratives and the people themselves. After all, no matter how much you read about a subject, especially this one, you need to see the realities on the ground and talk to the people affected in order to truly understand. Without this experience, you’ll never fully understand the permanency of settlements, the irritation of having to go through checkpoints, or the general devastating effects of Israeli occupation.

You may know the arguments behind the long-term two-state and one-state solutions, but what about solutions to today’s issues like the so-called “security fence,” human rights violations, and ethnic segregation? You may be aware of the daily struggles of Palestinians and Bedouins, but hearing those tribulations straight from them was somehow exponentially more powerful. Each story revealed a new perspective and a new problem within the conflict, from the widespread lack of water to the burning desire to reunite with family after being imprisoned for months or even years without trial.

But don’t fret, for this trip wasn’t all serious. The country and views were beautiful, the food was excellent (especially the gelato), and the marketplaces were bustling. Between readings, reflections papers, and scheduled activities, there was time to lounge by the hotel pool, explore Tel Aviv, and go to the beach. Furthermore, I am walking away from this trip with multiple new friends I might not have met otherwise, and I’ve grown closer with my wonderful, inspiring professor and advisor, Ronnie.

Broadly, every stone unturned on this journey revealed another concern or criticism of what I thought was fact. This idea of continually looking for new counterarguments and readjusting was, for me, one of the most important and most widely applicable lessons from the trip. Pertaining to this conflict, however, I’ve learned that it and its potential solutions are far more complex than Israelis not wanting to give up what they’ve gained, or Palestinians refusing to accept Israeli concessions despite them being much greater than what they have now. Moreover, I’ve realized that sometimes the people most affected by a situation have the least power to change it. Therefore, if I were lucky enough to go on this trip again, I would ask each person with whom we talked, “If you had more power, what would you do to influence the conflict? What can I do?”

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A Life-Changing Experience

I applied to go to Israel as a first semester freshman with little knowledge of the conflict. When we stepped off the plane, I stood surrounded by government majors afraid that I was completely unqualified, but I ended up making 11 new amazing friends while learning about a subject matter that gave me a new perspective on life.

I went into the trip with a view that the conflict was one united Israel against one united Palestine, but found that this view was the opposite of the reality in Israel and the West Bank. I learned that there are cleavages in both Israeli and Palestinian society between the secular and the religious, the Arabs and the Jews, and the leftists and the right wing that prevent a unified opinion on a solution to the conflict. Through discussions with peace activists, settlers, Arab-Israelis, Palestinians, and even a rabbi, I discovered that both Israeli and Palestinian society are fractured over basic issues that make it almost impossible to unite on solution to the conflict.

Talking with Jewish Israelis and their Rabbi.

The trip was so important because I learned things through experiences that I could not have learned through readings. A great example of this is the Israeli occupation and settlements in the West Bank. No matter how much you read about the effects of occupation and settlements, you can never actually visualize the reality of them until you see places like Hebron where a ghost town has developed in an area where Palestinians have been banned from. We saw once booming Palestinian areas that are now uninhabited and Israeli settlements that I imagined to be shantytowns, but are instead booming suburban neighborhoods. It is not possible to imagine the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being there and talking to the people that feel the effects.

Enjoying dinner and the night life in Jaffa!

Now that I have returned from the trip, I feel that I have a better understanding of the conflict as a whole. The personal experiences we had with secular Israelis, Palestinians, and Israeli Settlers makes me feel that I have a well rounded understanding of the conflict because I could see all sides of the situation.

If given the opportunity, I would definitely go on this trip again. Although I have a good understanding of the conflict, the situation is constantly changing in both Israel and the West Bank, so I could have a completely different experience in a couple of years. If educational reasons were not enough, I could definitely go back to enjoy the delicious food and the exciting night life of Tel Aviv! The trip was life changing and has given me a new look at the conflict and global politics in general!

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