Michigan State University student Jack Harrison writes about his recent trip to Israel.
I recently went to Israel on a trip organized by MSU Hillel called Fact Finders where students of different backgrounds and identities traveled to Israel and the West Bank. The purpose was to increase our knowledge of the country, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and different perspectives among residents there.
I went with an open mind to learn. I felt nervous and at times uncomfortable, but I embraced each experience. I realized I was in a privileged position to go to both the West Bank and Israel, and I tried to use the opportunity to gain a broader overview of the situation. I came back with much more knowledge and understanding of the conflict and how residents see it. I’ve read a lot about the country and the conflict, but there are things you learn on the ground that you just cannot learn from a textbook.
Each city and region was so different from one another. From the Kibbutz villages in the Golan Heights in the north to the Holy City of Jerusalem to the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean, I had never experienced a country where each city was so unique. You can read about the cities, but until you experience them, you don’t realize why Israel is so incredible but also so complicated.
Visiting the Golan Heights and seeing the bunkers and old tanks left from the conflict with Syria was a reminder that tension is still high at the borders. Experiencing the holy sites in Jerusalem and seeing how the same places mean so much to followers of different religions is something you cannot understand from a textbook. As a religious person with connections to Jerusalem, I understand why it means so much to so many. Although religion can divide, it was powerful to see how it grounds so many people of different faiths.
The massive security presence throughout East Jerusalem was something you cannot feel from a textbook and was a feeling I had never experienced in the United States. Walking through the shuk, or market, in the Old City and talking with and bartering with the different vendors was very cool.
I had never seen so many fences and walls dividing people as when we visited Israel’s border with Gaza. While I did not feel unsafe, it did feel like my heart stopped beating there. I could not believe I was just feet from Gaza. I felt sad to be at the place responsible for so much destruction amid the complicated Israeli and Palestinian relationship. I felt sad for those trapped in Gaza and on the outside living in fear. The pins calling for peace glued onto the wall were juxtaposed with rocket shelters converted into play structures for kids just yards away.
Entering the West Bank through check- points, I was at first shocked how separated it is from Israel when there are some of the same people living in both places. Yet life was also different in these two portions of the country just feet apart because the governments are so different.
Visiting Bethlehem was a reminder of how the Palestinian people are deprived of water, electricity and other basic needs. Seeing the humanity and struggle of Palestinian refugees was emotional and important to take in. Entering Ramallah and talking with the Palestinian Authority was important because I could hear from its members and its own narrative, without the filter of what our U.S. media or Israel have to say.
Walking the beach in Tel Aviv, it was important to see nightlife and that the conflict does not dominate every aspect of life. I learned how the city was and continues to be a refuge for the LGBTQ community. I bonded with my peers on my trip, and it was humbling how all of us with different identities and backgrounds came together to learn.
We met with Israeli and Palestinian journalists, both critical of each other and of their own people. It was incredible to hear how they communicate and how they navigate reporting on the conflict. We heard from educators seeking to integrate more diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives into education. We also heard from former government officials about why getting to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult, but why that needs to be the end goal.
Each person I talked to had their own story and their own voice. I saw the humanity in every person, and my hope is that everyone there sees the humanity in each other. There is co-existence and there are many areas of peace, so I did leave with some optimism.
I want people to do their research and be open to listening and learning. There is power and benefit from talking to people on the ground, being uncomfortable and ultimately understanding their viewpoints better in the end.
Jack Harrison is a rising senior at Michigan State University studying political theory and constitutional democracy in James Madison College, journalism and public relations. This essay was originally published on Martin Waymire’s blog.