Three Jewish college students from New Jersey are hailing their recent trip to Israel as eye-opening and mind-changing — mainly because they traveled with fellow undergraduates who are not Jewish.
The Israel Uncovered: Campus Leaders Mission was designed to present to the students a varied range of political and social perspectives relating to Israel and the Palestinians; participants, both frequent travelers to Israel and newcomers, found themselves exposed to points of view different from their own.
“I had been to Israel with Jewish friends before but I had never seen different viewpoints until I spent 10 days there with non-Jewish student leaders,” said Jack Rabner, a sophomore majoring in public policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “I think we came back with a greater understanding that Israel is a country not for Jewish people only.”
The trip was sponsored by the David Project — a Boston-based Israel advocacy organization that seeks “to improve the Israel conversation on campus by encouraging Jewish students to build relationships with non-Jewish campus leaders and invite them on our trips.”
Offered for the first time last year, this year’s Israel program had double the number of participants: 67 student leaders from 19 universities, with one Jewish student from each campus accompanied by several non-Jewish colleagues they had invited.
They were organized into two groups, 32 students in the first one, in Israel from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 (including those from Rutgers and Princeton), and the remainder from Dec. 31 to Jan. 10.
The organization offers the free trips to students at 35 campuses across the country — some with active pro-Palestinian student organizations. Once mainly identified with exposing anti-Israel bias on college campuses, the David Project has shifted in recent years to focus on training leaders and building relationships in support of Israel.
“We try to present Israel as it is — secular and religious Jews, Christians, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians — the whole gamut of people who are living there,” said Jacob Levkowicz, the David Project’s senior campus coordinator. “We are looking for schools where complicated, nuanced discourse about Israel is happening, where people are talking about it, and it is an issue on campus.”
Their tour included Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious sites; a kibbutz; the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
Also on the itinerary were visits to two West Bank sites, Alphei Menashe, a Jewish settlement, and Barta’a, a Palestinian village.
It was the seventh trip to Israel for Rabner, who is from Caldwell and whose father is NJ Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. But for many of the non-Jewish students, it was their first time in the Middle East.
“I didn’t really have any preconceptions about the conflict. I just had a lot of questions, like what is it about Israel that makes it so special to people,” said Jasmine Robinson of Kensington, Md., one of the non-Jewish students invited by Rabner. A politics major at Princeton, she volunteers at a home for teenage runaways in Trenton. Before the group visited the Western Wall on Shabbat, said Robinson, she “didn’t understand the religious significance of the place. We also met a lot of Palestinian people, and that opened me up to why it was important for diverse races of people to live there.
“It was hard for some of the Jewish students to meet with activists for the Palestinians, who have obviously very different views than they did,” said Robinson. “But I got to see all different sides, and it was really valuable.”
Dashaya Foreman, a sophomore from Philadelphia, is president of Princeton’s Black Student Union.
The trip “gave us the chance to look at Israel from many perspectives and gave us a chance to develop our own ideas,” said Foreman, an international relations major at the Woodrow Wilson School. “I learned you can be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. I don’t think one group is completely wrong and another group is completely right. Both groups have really strong causes they are fighting for.”
Kacie O’Connell, a leader of Princeton Faith and Action, rounded out the university’s contingent.
“The trip had a very humane aspect,” said Indian-born Sarthi Tuli, a resident adviser at a Rutgers dorm and an officer of his fraternity, Delta Upsilon, who was chosen to accompany Rutgers junior Emily Gutowski of Highland Park. “The trip was always about people,” said Tuli. “I think the Jewish students and the non-Jewish students all gained a lot by hearing different perspectives.
“Before going I was aware of opinions on both sides, but I don’t think it would have made sense for me to hold a strong opinion without visiting the place,” he said. “By going there I saw individuals on both sides who have gone through a lot. I saw that you can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.”
But even for Jewish students who had been to Israel before, the trip proved eye-opening.
“I have been surrounded by Jewish people all my life and I have had a one-sided upbringing,” said Gutowski, who had been to Israel four previous times. “I only really heard about the Jewish perspective of ‘This is what the Jews are going through in Israel.’ After this trip I have broadened my perspective and I’ve seen that it is so much more complicated.
“Going there with people who are not Jewish affected me most,” said Gutowski, a graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick. “I was able to experience things and think about things through them. The fact that I wasn’t with people who are like me forced me to think in a broader way,” she said.
With her were two other Rutgers students, Donald Coughlan, chair of the College Republicans, and Raquel Muniz, an active member of the Rutgers Performing Dance Company.
Jewish student Zachary Blaifeder, a resident of Wayne, is an international studies major at American University. He was in the Dec. 31-Jan. 10 David Project group on what was his second trip to Israel.
“I still feel strongly for the right of Jews to have their own state, but at the same time I feel that Palestinians should have their own state,” he told NJJN. “Israel is not perfect, and Palestinians are not living in the best conditions on the West Bank. But at the same time they are probably living in better conditions than they are in most of the Arab world. But I definitely recognize their right to self-determination.”
Gutowski said she never expected that “Israel Uncovered would surpass the educational and venture into the transformational. For all of us, this trip changed our perspective and gave us firsthand experience from which to speak knowledgeably about Israel.
“I know that the country I love has impacted others in the same way that it has impacted me.”