A diverse range of GW students spent spring break immersing themselves in the Israeli-Palestinian conversation by being exposed to places and viewpoints from both sides.
By Nick Erickson
During a lunch break in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, George Washington University first-year student Dov Factor thanked the worker who handed him a shawarma. Except Factor expressed his gratefulness in Hebrew, signifying his Jewish heritage on what recent history might suggest as the wrong side of the border to do so.
Factor, one of five Jewish students out of the 25 who attended GW Hillel’s Building Bridges trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories over spring break, became uneasy after a co-traveler pointed out what he had done. But those feelings subsided moments later when the group of GW students began to interact with local Palestinians who were excited to see visitors in their homeland.
“These cultures are way more similar than they are different,” Factor said. “They both value human interaction.”
Those are exactly the type of moments the Building Bridges trip intended to create. GW students from different religious, cultural, political and racial backgrounds spent the university’s spring holiday touring three geographic regions in Israel, in addition to visiting Ramallah and Rawabi on the Palestine side of the disputed West Bank.
Sara Evangelista, director of Jewish Student Life at GW Hillel, traveled with the group and said the discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often goes to the people who scream the loudest. The goal instead was for students to contribute something other than noise.
“The hope is that when we get back on campus, they are part of the thoughtful conversation of the community building of engaging thoughtfully and compassionately and empathetically in the conversation around Israel and the Palestinian territories,” Evangelista said.
Trip organizers sought out potential student attendees who are leaders on campus and put them through a tough interview process to ensure they could handle what they were about to see.
On the trip, the 25 students listened to citizens, journalists and leaders from both Israel and the Palestinian territories while visiting both geographical sides of the disputed piece of land.
“I think in order to be a great leader, you have to be a great listener,” said junior English major Gianna Cook, who is also president of the Black Student Union. “So, I think being in that space to be able to hear all those different perspectives was a great time to establish a spectrum of nuance within the conflict.”
While exposing students to different cultures and multiple sides of a conversation, trip organizers put their own ideas to practice by selecting a diverse range of students to accompany them in the Middle East.
Representatives included students from groups such as College Republicans, Young Black Professionals in International Affairs and Hillel at GW. The 20 non-Jewish students were tasked with immersing themselves in perspectives and cultures they were not used to, while the five Jewish students were chosen to attend for personal connection.
The diversity of backgrounds on the trip made for rich discussions, and Factor believes there is strong merit in bringing differing viewpoints and life experiences together for conversation.
“I think that if Israelis and Palestinians mimicked the way the non-Jewish students and the Jewish students connected on the trip outside of these dialogues, it would make a big impact,” he said.
While the students enjoyed a few moments of downtime together on the Mediterranean Sea beaches, this was no brain break vacation. They were challenged at every stop—which included Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank—to compare what they were seeing to the narratives of the conflict.
Near the end of the trip, the group was on a bus near the Gaza Strip and were told just how close they were to bomb shelters. As unnerving as that could have been, Cook immediately thought of the children born into that situation. She understood the importance of the human element and that maybe this conflict isn’t simply a black and white issue.
Factor agreed, and personally meeting both Israelis and Palestinians on the trip showed him that expressing gratitude can be a universal language.
“Some people are better at having empathy than others, but it's hard to be a human and not have any empathy at all,” Factor said. “And these people on every single side have a lot of empathy, and I think that was what gave me a lot of hope on the trip.”