Brian Solomon said his first trip to Israel was nothing like what he had envisioned when he was a Hebrew school student.
“It was easy to look at Israel from afar as two groups and say, ‘There are the Israelis and the Palestinians, and they can’t get along,’” said the Princeton Junction resident.
But back on the campus of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire after a week-long visit to Israel, he said he now has a more nuanced view.
“There is no situation that the people of Israel face that can’t be found with 20 different sides to it and 20 people who see each conflict in 20 different ways,” he told NJ Jewish News.
From Dec. 29 to Jan. 3, Solomon was one of 18 college journalists who visited Israel and the West Bank on a fact-finding tour sponsored by Project Interchange, a program run by the American Jewish Committee.
The trip included meetings with a West Bank settlement leader and a Palestinian human rights activist, and visits to an Israeli town often under siege, a solar energy farm, and even a Bedouin tent.
“I came back with an appreciation of just how complicated the situation is,“ said Solomon. “Getting that experience and talking to so many people who have completely different understandings of what Israel is about and what Isreal means to them — seeing all those different people — just leaves you with a profound sense of how difficult the situation is. Getting a very simplisitic education does not do the situation justice.”
Solomon and Emily Cohn, a student editor at Cornell University, were the only two Jewish participants on the trip.
“We bring groups of leaders to Israel so they can see a broad spectrum of interests and points of view,“ said Patrick Morris, the senior program associate at Project Interchange, who was the group’s tour guide.
In the past, he has led similar trips for members of the Turkish press corps and African-American clergy.
Among the non-Jews on the university tour was Princeton University student Brian No, a Korean-American from Denver. A politics major with a keen interest in domestic issues, he said he was intrigued by “the whole big conflict going on in the United States Jewish community between AIPAC and J Street. That piqued my interest about going to Israel.”
The relatively new J Street, a dovish pro-Israel group in Washington, has been portrayed as a rival to the larger and more established American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
No called the Interchange group’s visit to the West Bank settlement of Efrat “a real surprise.”
When you hear of settlements you think of temporary — you know, trailer parks,” he said. “But Efrat seemed like an upscale suburban neighborhood.”
There the group met with Bob Lang, the American-born leader of Efrat’s religious council.
“He was very much on the Right of the Israeli spectrum, and personally, I did not agree with a lot of his views. But it was a very educational visit,” said No.
Solomon was moved by the group’s visit to Sderot — the embattled Israeli town near the Gaza border.
After seeing an exhibit of exploded rockets, a stop at a bomb shelter, and a visit with a Sderot family, said Solomon, he and the other journalists “talked to a mother. We couldn‘t understand why anyone might stay in a place like that. How they could live there is so impossible to grasp. We understood the powerful connection people have to their homes and how they say, ‘We don’t want to be pushed around by terror,’ but none of us could imagine actually living there.”
The delegation also met with Bassam Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, and Issa Jaber, director of the Education Department in the Israeli Arab village of Abu Gosh.
Eid’s group monitors the Palestinian Authority’s human rights record, while Abu Ghosh has a historic reputation for supporting coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews.
“Eid seemed to be a secular progressive person, but I would think his views are probably not the average Palestinian’s,” said No. “Jaber seemed very much a Muslim progressive. He was very clear in his strong belief that an open democratic society was very important. He is trying to make sure the Arab Israeli community is not treated as second-class citizens. But I just don’t know if they represent the full spectrum of the Palestinian people.”
Solomon said he returned to the United States “knowing so much more than I did a week ago, but I still feel like I’m scratching the surface.”
Before the visit, No said, he believed in “a two-state solution and having America play a bigger role in sort-of twisting Israel’s arm to make sure there can be an agreement and also have the international community put pressure on the Palestinians.”
Had the visit changed his opinion?
“I believe Israel is an important ally of the United States. I wouldn’t say my views have changed,” he said. “If anything, I was able to understand the nuances and the emotional attachment Jewish people have to Israel, but I don’t think it changed my opinion about the best way toward peace.”