Brandeis students study Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the scene

ISRAEL CAMPUS COALITION: Our guide standing on the remains of a house next to Gaza.Most people don’t visit the place where we were standing. Certainly not Birthright. Most people would be too scared to even set foot in the area at all, but there was our group of 41 Americans, from various college campuses, standing just outside the Gaza border. Our guide was showing us the place where rockets are launched from, and under our feet were scattered remnants of houses that the Israeli army destroyed when it built a tall fence to separate Gaza from Israeli territory.

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Ben Sacks

The purpose of our ten day trip to Israel was not to enjoy Israel’s innumerable biblical landmarks or have fun bargaining over prices in the flea markets, like Birthright trips do. Our mission, formally called the Israel on Campus Coalition: Israel at 60 Mission, was to experience the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as first-hand as possible and to use our experiences to combat the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on our college campuses back in the United States.

The trip, which consisted of college sophomores and juniors from over 25 different pro-Israel programs such as AIPAC and Hillel, and over 20 different universities and colleges across America, basically consisted of three parts: meetings with high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials, meetings with various “ordinary” Israeli and Palestinian residents, and community service. Though some of our experiences were fun, others were heart-wrenching. We listened as a Palestinian woman from the West Bank told of how her brother was shot at an Israeli checkpoint without an explanation. We built a sidewalk in the derelict town of Dimona and watched as immigrant children played on hard concrete with sharp edges. We saw trucks lined up for miles outside the Gaza border, with some drivers waiting upwards of five hours to deliver aid to the impoverished residents on the other side.

For me, something struck a chord when we visited Aleh, a special community in southern Israel specially designed for severely handicapped Israelis who cannot live without full time care and constant supervision. Run by an ex-general whose brother was wounded and abandoned in Lebanon by his unit until he bled to death, Aleh has a strict policy of only accepting Jewish disabled. Our guide explained ,“it’s in Israel, for Jews.” For me, that was hard. Its one thing to segregate people for safety reasons; this was the rejection of the innocent and helpless based on politics.

Our host organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, is an “umbrella” composed of 32 different pro-Israel organizations. The Coalition’s goal was to unify us in our support for Israel and attempt to help us create a common, unified stance for the support of Israel, given that our various organizations come from all ends of the political and religious spectrum, ranging from the right with Orthodox to left-wing Reform to… you name it. Finding common arguments was not as easy as it seemed it should have been. There were three Brandeis students with me on the trip: Garrett Nada ’10, Aaron Taylor ’10 and Anna Wood ’09, though we each were there to represent separate programs. Nada noted, “it struck me as kind of odd listening to someone on our trip [argue against Israel’s sacrificing any land] for peace.” “It felt odd listening to other people on our trip express views that were so differentfrom mine, noted Taylor.”

Certain feelings were shared by most. “The symbolism of standing on ruins of settlements while discussing them really hit home. When you discuss [the movement or destruction] of settlements, you are talking about uprooting people from their homes. It doesn’t matter how many generations a family has lived on a piece of land, for anyone, home is where you grew up,” noted Nada. Indeed, our tour guide was standing on what used to be someone’s bathroom wall as he explained how Israel spent $40 million dollars to move the wrecked village to the Israeli side of the border with Gaza.

Overall, our group left the trip with mixed reactions. “The Arab representatives that we spoke with talked about compromise, but didn’t actually seem interested in it,” observed Taylor. But, he noted, “It doesn’t matter how many generations have lived on a piece of land, the currentgeneration still sees that land as its home, it has just as much as a connection.” For me, Garrett’s point hit home; regardless of any political agendas, the people affected the most by political decisions are ordinary, peace seeking residents. It doesn’t look like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved anything soon. Perhaps next year, the second annual Coalition trip will be able to find a solution. In the mean- time, the Coalition is not alone in trying to educate American college students on the significance and issues of the conflict. In just one month, Brandeis will send a group of students to Israel to study the conflict in response to a challenge from former President Carter to do so last semester. In the mean time, one message remains clear, though not original: there is no forseeable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the short term. It’s one thing to learn about the conflict on a visit from home, the USA. It’s another to live it every day for a lifetime.

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