Following the UJS Start Up Nation trip, Macy Hall tells us about her new perspective on Israel.
Sometime between October and December last year, I had the absolute privilege of setting up a JSoc at Bath Spa University. When I first emailed our students’ union, I had no idea how incredible of an experience the academic year was about to be – from building a relationship with a frankly amazing committee, growing our small community, and engaging with UJS, we suddenly had a litany of opportunities available to us.
For me, one of those opportunities was the Start Up trip to Israel and the West Bank with UJS, where we were given the chance to engage in culture, politics, and our faith. As someone who had never been to Israel before, I knew that this would be an experience that would stay with me for a long time.
Even though I arrived at the airport ridiculously early, flooded with the anxiety of not knowing anyone else who was going on the trip, I knew from the very moment that I found the other students that I had made the right decision to apply. Not only was I about to go on a trip that had been a dream of mine for a while, but I also made friends that I wouldn’t trade for the world, which came with the bonus of getting to share this experience with them.
When we arrived in Israel, our first event was the 75th Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in Tel Aviv. Being immersed in unfiltered joy and excitement set the tone for the entire trip; from the outset we got to experience true pride for our homeland and a connection we wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. To say that the mood filtered through into the next day would be an understatement, as we spent the rest of the holiday on a street art tour of Tel Aviv and then had the opportunity to get creative with our own spray-painted vinyls. After a trip to the Museum of the Jewish People, we got to watch the sun set over Israel’s 75th Independence Day from beside a pool – I personally cannot think of a better way to see out the celebrations.
Our next day came as a stark contrast to what we’d experienced so far, with a trip to the West Bank. For me, this was the hardest part of the trip, which came with an indescribable heaviness and sadness. It doesn’t seem to matter how much you read about the separation wall – nothing could have prepared me for the feeling of walking along it. A trip to the Walled Off Hotel provided us with a further opportunity to educate ourselves from a different perspective and gain an understanding into what life is like in the West Bank. We later travelled to Ramallah to hear from Palestinian entrepreneurs and get an insight into start-up culture and the conflicts impacts on business.
We were able to see a different side of this the following day, as we took a tour of Tel Aviv and discussed the competitive environment at the heart of the proclaimed start-up nation. This allowed us to see how politics and the conflict had differing impacts on Palestinian start-ups and Israeli start-ups.
Continuing our very packed day, we visited the British Ambassador’s residence to learn about British-Israeli relations and how dialogue and cooperation works between the two countries. This was a huge learning opportunity for us as we got to gain an understanding into the duties of the British Ambassador and how the relationship is protected and developed. Moving onto Jaffa, we toured some more neighbourhoods and learnt about the history of the area and the impacts of gentrification. Here, we heard some more about Arab-Israeli citizens and intra-societal tensions and this was a really interesting account of how it has been affected by gentrification as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Being able to see the rebuilding and renovation of the area first-hand was disheartening, as you were able to see streets with rich history being left behind, all but waiting to be subjected to the same renovation as those around them.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was Shabbat. We spent our Shabbat in Jerusalem and had the opportunity to visit the Kotel. I had been told countless times that my first time seeing the wall would change everything; it’s belief reaffirming, deeply personal, and from what I had been told, like coming home after a lifetime away, but until that night, I had no concept of what that would actually be like. I thought about that moment in a movie just before a tense scene is about to play out, when the music or noise will drown out into a blissful silence to be replaced with the steady thump of the character’s heartbeat. It’s consuming, overwhelming, and highly unrealistic, but it was all I felt when I was at the Kotel. Although I’ve never been one to play into cliches or believe in rose-tinted realities, this was an experience that seemed to change all of that. Being stood at the wall with people I had become close to in such a short space of time, I felt more connected to my beliefs and my community than I have in a long time and that is something that I will forever be grateful for. I knew that this trip was going to have an impact on me, but I never knew exactly how much it would change me.
After such an emotional night, we visited the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then later heard from a Palestinian man about his perspective on living in East Jerusalem. He spoke about his work and life in the area and whilst it was a difficult experience for many of us, debating views that deeply opposed ours, it was a valuable insight into the reality of Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the difficulties that this can create. Our day was capped off with dinner with the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who spoke to us about her duties, covering the role that the conflict and security plays in Jerusalem, as well as discussing the difficulties she faced as both a woman and an immigrant in politics. It’s safe to say that it was a valuable experience, both educational and deeply inspiring.
By the time that our final day came, the idea of leaving Israel was almost unbearable. It was hard to think about leaving all of these new friendships and memories behind, but we still had time to make the most of. This started with meeting Daniel Taub, the former Israeli ambassador to the UK, and having an interesting conversation with him about his job. After this, we had free time before our flight, which most of us spent at Machane Yehuda Shuk. For me, the joy of soaking up the atmosphere of Jerusalem one last time with my friends, eating falafel and playing dress-up in one of the stores was tinged with the sadness of knowing we had to leave, though it was clear that we would be taking something valuable away with us.
Landing back in the UK was admittedly bittersweet. It was hard to say goodbye at the airport, but I had so much excitement about being able to share what I’d experienced with those at home that it was hard not to be glad to be there. Though I hadn’t known what to expect at the start of the trip, by the end I had gained so much that I didn’t even know I had been missing, from a connection to our homeland and community to an insight into an otherwise unfathomable conflict.
Despite my lack of eagerness for our trip to come to an end, the experience for me isn’t truly over, even now, as I get to use my voice and my JSoc committee role to share what I’ve learnt and how it’s shaped my beliefs. That, above all, is invaluable.