Last year Liandy Gonzalez, a Rutgers University student who is of Puerto Rican descent, traveled to Israel with the David Project, which promotes pro-Israel advocacy on the college campus. When he returned home he said he was a staunch Israel supporter.
But in January, after attending a Rutgers Hillel-sponsored visit to the Jewish state, the Paterson resident said he finds himself “more in the middle,” a somewhat surprising response for someone participating in a program organized by a pro-Israel group. But, at least on one level, his reaction was not unexpected.
Gonzalez, who is in the fourth year of a five-year program in Latino and Caribbean studies, was one of 25 Rutgers University student leaders of various religious and ethnic backgrounds who traveled to Israel open to new experiences. Ten days later, on Jan. 7, they landed back in N.J. some a little confused and most with more questions than when they left, but each of them had a broader perspective on Israeli society and a greater appreciation for the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer and Israel fellow Aviv Ayash led the trip, which included Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Arab, Latino, and Asian students; five Jewish students came, too. They were campus representatives of Democratic, Republican, progressive, women’s empowerment, and libertarian groups and of Greek life, ROTC, and Model UN.
The purpose of this trip, said Getraer, was to take non-Jewish student leaders who represent diverse cross-sections of the Rutgers campus to Israel “so they can learn what the reality on the ground is, decide what it means to them and then share that assessment with their peers” upon their return.
This program differed from other Hillel trips to Israel, according to Getraer, which are centered on Jewish students connecting with their Jewish identity.
This was the first year Hillel offered such a trip, which is based on a similar program that was sponsored by five California Hillels last year and seemed to result in more pro-Israel allies in their university communities, according to Getraer.
Rutgers Hillel pledged to show participants Israel “warts and all,” by exposing them to a variety of voices and viewpoints — including those critical of Israeli policies — in the country’s divergent communities. Among the activities were various meetings in the West Bank — with Palestinians in the towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem and with ultra-Orthodox residents of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, including Efrat.
“One thing we promised our students was that this was not going to be a propaganda trip, that we were not going to try to manipulate their experience so they would see our viewpoint,” Getraer said. “We wanted to give them a full picture of the conflict.”
Does he worry that, in doing so, the students might come away with a negative opinion of Israel?
“Our belief is that any objective experience of the reality of Israel leads to a positive view of Israel,” said Getraer.
Even though Gonzalez said he has a better understanding of both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, his impression of Israel is still positive. But that’s not always the case on campus. It’s been his observation that among the liberal student body at Rutgers, those who do pay attention often take an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stand, a result of not being fully “educated on the subject,” Gonzalez said.
Junior Anna Baker of Somerville, who is Catholic, said she was surprised to learn there was so much relatively peaceful coexistence among people of different religions in Israel.
“I thought it was really cool to see a synagogue, next to a church, next to a mosque,” said Baker, a peer instructor at the university’s Aresty Research Center. She said that for her, one of the contentious issues characterizing life in Israel has been “painted as a war against religion. There’s a lot of built-up tension, but you see people practicing their religion freely, without persecution. From seeing it on the news, that’s not how I thought I was.”
Another significant takeaway for Baker had to do with common misconceptions with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is, she discovered, “no clear-cut answer, and I think a lot of Americans think there is.” But sometimes it seems simple. “A lot of people,” she said, “are just trying to live and raise their families.”
What most haunted Baker, she said, was the “surreal” excursion to the Syrian border, where, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Golan Heights, the group observed the United Nations peacekeeping troops with the knowledge of the brutal war and suffering of the people on the other side.
Getraer said that 300 students applied for one of the 25 spots, and 100 were interviewed by Hillel staff. He declined to reveal the identities of some of the participants — students who are Muslim or who are involved with progressive groups that oppose Israel — because for some of them, he said, “it took a lot of courage to come on this trip, and their communities would be very critical of them coming, especially under the auspices of a Jewish organization.”
Participants met with Israeli journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens. They also spoke with Knesset members representing both the Likud and Labor parties and, in Jerusalem and throughout the country, visited Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holy sites.
Elise Zhou, a senior political science and philosophy major from Parsippany, said she was surprised to discover the range of opinions and perspectives about the importance of Israel as a Jewish state, including among its Jewish residents of differing political and religious beliefs. The Chinese-American is editor-in-chief of Arete, the undergraduate philosophy journal at Rutgers, and was also a student leadership instructor for First-Year Interest Group Seminars (FIGS) in which upper-class members help freshmen transition to college life.
She said she was impressed by the country’s diversity, and was surprised to see the difference in culture as they traveled to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
“In Tel Aviv it felt like you were in California,” Zhou said. “There were lots of young people and beaches and we were all shocked because it wasn’t like the images you see on the news.”
Regarding the conflict, she said, she “came back even more confused than I was going in,” adding, “but that’s because I only knew the situation on a surface level.”
Now, equipped with a deeper understanding, she said she hopes to convey to people on campus how much the conflict surrounding Israel affects its citizens and try to convince her classmates to be more open-minded about the situation.
Riley Link, a junior from Oradell who is majoring in public health, said she wanted to participate because she had heard so many positive things about the country from Jewish friends who had gone on Birthright Israel, the free trip available to Jewish young people. She said she found Tel Aviv “dynamic,” the country’s history to be “just incredible,” and was particularly impressed by Israel’s level of development and sophistication.
Of the people they met with, including journalists and politicians, Link, who is Catholic, said, “I was surprised they were so candid and willing to talk to us.” She was so inspired by the experience that after returning stateside she purchased books to learn more about Israel’s history and help facilitate discussions on campus.
The participants, Link added, were “really motivated and interested to learn and very open-minded,” she said. They “came from different backgrounds and had very different takes on the situation.” Despite sometimes disagreeing, she said they were always respectful of one another and formed a close bond. And on Jan. 19, most of them joined Hillel at its weekly Shabbat dinner.