Isabelle, left, with friends at the top of Masada during The Real Deal 2017
When thinking about Israel (or pretty much any subject), we, as Jews, tend to hold strong opinions; whether Orthodox, or Reform, or secular, Zionist, or not, we have an opinion on every aspect of the State of Israel, from religious and cultural importance to the Jewish people, to its place within the wider world. Yet some reports would suggest that increasing numbers of Jewish students are choosing to disassociate from Israel, what with the increasing pressure to justify the actions of the Israeli government, and the growth of the BDS movement across many universities.
While I personally still identify as a Zionist, many of the events that occur in Israel have led me to think more deeply about the role Israel plays in my Judaism and how it is viewed by other people my age.
This is why UJS’s new trip, ‘The Real Deal’, seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to experience Israel. I have visited the country several times with my family, but felt I was still lacking a balanced dialogue of the conflicts that occur there, and the UJS trip offered an opportunity to see Israel in a new light, with time dedicated to the current realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In contrast to trips such as Tour or Birthright, The Real Deal combined Jewish and non-Jewish students, with interests in history, international relations, politics, and the Middle East, in a way that stimulated debate that tends to lack in conversations surrounding Israel. When hearing about Israel on the news there is generally a bias, to the point that we discredit much of what the BBC or Channel 4 for reports, and take pro-Israel publications as the truth. There is a similar bias when Israel comes up within student politics, leading to a halt in conversation, as each side refuses to listen to the other.
However, due to the thoughtful nature of all the students on the trip, it really allowed engagement in the debate surrounding Israel in a way I, personally, have never been able to experience before. In many instances, minor biases that I had never noticed were picked up on by some of the non-Jewish students. It took their insight, and their experience of the conversation surrounding Israel to see these slight biases that would never occur to me, as that is the narrative that I have been brought up with, and have come to expect. Furthermore, this provided new paths for discussion, as it highlighted how the language we use to present conflicts, and the stories we choose to tell, all play a role in how we engage in these issues.
These nuanced, and meaningful discussions went far deeper than others on this controversial topic usually can, and were a highlight of the trip for myself and many other participants.
These complex dialogues can be accredited to the itinerary which UJS created. While it may have been exhausting, it was also extremely worthwhile, and really set this trip apart. Not only did we visit sites of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian importance (which really drove home the importance of the land to all of the monotheistic religions), we also were provided with the opportunity to enter Palestinian territory, which allowed us to contrast life in Ramallah with life in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv.
Additionally, we had conversations with individuals from both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict; we spoke with Palestinian residents about the struggles they face living in Ramallah and Rawabi, as well as with a resident of one of the settlements, and finally with founders of a peace project within the West bank (and, of course, the Israelis who were part of our programme). These accounts allowed us to understand the consequences that have been felt on both sides, better than any news report ever could.
As well as affording us the opportunity to speak to those living through this conflict, UJS planned for us to visit the Israeli borders with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. I know I am not just speaking for myself when I write that it is a completely harrowing experience to hear bombs dropping just over the border in Syria, when in the Golan Heights, or seeing a playground in S’derot where bomb shelters are disguised as cement caterpillars. These experiences really brought the conflict in the Middle East into full focus, and show the real effects felt by normal people who are just looking to live their lives, in their homes, with their families. People who cannot help but be brought into a conflict, which despite continuing for decades, seems to have no solution.
As a young, Zionist Jew, with several family members living in Israel, having a connection with Israel is important to me, and I knew that I would eventually go on an organised trip to Israel, to strengthen that connection. However, I am so glad I found ‘The Real Deal’. While I might have had an easier and more Judaism-centric experience on a different trip, I would never have experienced those aspects of the trip that made it so meaningful, and important for me to have been a part of.
Moreover, the trip has not altered my views on Israel in any extreme way, but has allowed me to engage in much of what I read and hear with more impartiality, referencing the opinions of my new non-Jewish friends on the matter, and attempting to see information through their eyes.
This trip has further confirmed the importance of connecting with Israel as a Jew, but has most importantly shown the need to connect in a way that brings in perspectives from outside the Jewish bubble, and therefore allows us to create a more nuanced, and balanced opinion of this highly complex country.
Isabelle Tarsh, Durham J-Soc
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