In December 2016, I participated in the UJS Manhigut trip with students from universities across the UK.
When I decided to apply for this political tour around Israel exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first hand, I was skeptical. A part of me believed that the program would be angled from a point that Israel’s narrative would dominate and it would serve as a tool for advancing Israel’s cause. However, as I came to understand, that was not the purpose of the trip.
The UJS Manhigut trip provided us with diverse views from different political, academic and social players. The goal was to expose us to as many different opinions and experiences of people as possible, so we could shape our own vision and understanding of the conflict. After completing the tour, I can assure anyone that the UJS Manhigut was a very eye-opening and mind-blowing experience which, as a devoted supporter of peace in the Middle East, I appreciate greatly. Therefore, I believe anyone wishing to comprehend the complexities surrounding the conflict should participate in UJS Manhigut to advance accurate informing of our peers and prospects of peace, at least on our campuses. Manhigut changed my vision: from being a naive student, I understood that the conflict is not black and white.
The first day was marked with the visit to Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif. It was my first time seeing Dome of the Rock from such close proximity. First, we discussed the issues surrounding the orthodox and reform movements at the Kotel. This was followed by a visit to the Temple Mount where our tour guide Maya explained the history and complexities of Jewish-Muslim relations regarding the sacred place. We stood in the same place where Ariel Sharon caused outrage, which contributed to the Second Intifada. It was beyond fascinating to see and experience this right there where everything started. One could feel the pain and tension the small piece of land endured over centuries. The tour around Old City finished with a visit to Church of Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe that the world started from. It came to me as a surprise that even within the one church, there were disputes between the different Christian denominations. The Old City of Jerusalem is less than 1 square kilometers small and yet, it seemed to us that the world’s oldest complex disputes were walled inside.
The most interesting part of the trip for me was a visit to Ramallah where we met refugees in Al-Amari camp and leaders of Fatah Youth whose member was just elected to the Palestinian Legislative council in December. This was the day when many of us got to hear the Palestinian narrative from the Palestinians themselves. We all often visit our families and friends in Israel, however, this unique opportunity to engage in a conversation and challenge the Palestinian narrative with the people of Ramallah, is an experience I will always cherish. It was the visit to Yasser Arafat museum through which I realized that the way Palestinian view the conflict is absolutely different. When two Israeli soldiers found themselves lost and lynched in Ramallah in October 2000, the Museum reported on the event that “two undercover agents entered the city”.
The same day we visited Jewish settlements, Ariel and Eli, where we met Eliana, a religious American-born lady, who introduced us to a family in Eli and the Ariel city council. Personally, hearing their views and claim to the land was thought-provoking as it differed so much from what the Palestinians told us. Our day was also marked with a visit to Achva factory where Israelis and Palestinians work alongside each other in peace and harmony forgetting all the differences between each other and working towards a common goal. Seeing this contrast first-hand within a day was far beyond what I have imagined that the Manhigut trip would be like. It made me realize our disputes on campuses with Israel and Palestine societies are just childish fights and that we should do more to understand each other and work towards a peace rather than a fight of whose narrative is more heard on campus.
Israel is 75 times smaller than my home country Mongolia, however it shares its borders with more countries. Within a day we traveled from Jerusalem to the borders with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This was incredible as we got to visit the Island of Peace which Jordan gifted to Israel after the Peace Treaty of 1994 but also where Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh opened fire at the schoolchildren killing seven. One day you have a peace and another day a war. Seeing Hezbollah houses from a Kibbutz Misgav Am and the Syrian war from Golan Heights was a chilling experience, but very important as we understood the proximity of Israel with its conflict zones.
The day after our border visit, we explored the diversity of Tel Aviv. It is still so striking to me that in such a small piece of land, one can find so much diversity. Stories of a Sudanese refugee in BINA center and an Ethiopian lady explaining the issues within the Israeli society made me realize that we focus far too much on the issues of Israel-Palestine, forgetting the inner challenges in Israel and how are they dealt with. This journey genuinely opened my eyes to think outside the box and identify less known concerns.
The UJS Manhigut was a trip full of contrasts and heavy exposure to the complex realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issues within proper Israel. If you ask me whether I would participate in this trip again, I would not hesitate to even think about the answer. It was a truly life-changing trip during which I have become more compassionate, understanding and I grew as a person. It definitely taught me what it takes to be a leader by meeting all the inspiring journalists, politicians, activists and just ordinary people who are trying to make their life through wrong decisions made by their leaders.
Khulan is a student at SOAS in London.