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A Different Perspective: Hillel sends non-Jewish campus leaders to Israel

During a recent trip to the West Bank, Kedar Bell and other Washington University students traveled to Ramallah to meet with a Palestinian Authority official. 

“He was being very hospitable,” Bell, a sophomore, recalls. “I don’t know if that was to win us over; I’m not going to say that.”

Walid Assaf, the Palestinian Authority’s Chairman of the Commission Against the Wall and Settlements, showed the 24 students a video of Israel Defense Forces soldiers apparently interfering with Palestinians as they were building a school in the West Bank. It had subtitles so the students could understand what people in the video were supposedly saying.

“That in itself didn’t seem like propaganda to me, but the tour guide afterwards was telling us how the [P.A.] often translates the text to not actually show the full context of what is being said,” recalls Bell, a computer science major and member of the National Society of Black Engineers. Another student pointed to the dramatic background music and said he thought the video was sensationalized.

Rabbi Jordan Gerson, sitting next to the students last week at the Hillel at Wash U., explains that the military interfered because the building of the school was not done with any permits and they were unsure if it was safe. 

Bell was raised Christian but traveled to Israel in August on a Hillel-sponsored trip, Campus Leaders Israel Experience. 

The Jewish group organized the trip hoping to show Bell and other non-Jewish students a different perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they might otherwise get on campus. It included visits to the West Bank, a settler’s home and a Palestinian refugee camp, which are not typically included on a Birthright trip itinerary. 

“We wanted to make sure that our student leaders were able to see the reality on the ground,” said Gerson. “We think it’s important that they engage with the facts and not just what’s being fed to them by news outlets and posts on Facebook.”

The local Wash U. Hillel chapter is one among more than 40 around the country that in the last four years has organized trips to Israel for non-Jewish students. The trips are funded by the Maccabee Task Force, an initiative from conservative, pro-Israel billionaire philanthropist Sheldon Adelson aimed at combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The effort comes amidst concerns in the Jewish community about increasing anti-Israel sentiment among college students in the United States. In 2010, 81 percent of U.S. college students viewed Israel favorably, according to the Brand Israel Group, a collection of former advertising professionals that aims to promote Israel in America. In 2016, the number had dropped to 54 percent.

At Wash U., Hillel staff said they have noticed that students who support the BDS movement have changed tactics. Students for Justice in Palestine has changed its name to Washington University Students Against Israeli Apartheid and for the first time earlier this year protested Jewish students promoting Birthright trips, according to Gerson. Previously, the group had focused on protesting pro-Israel speakers and writing op-eds in the student newspaper, he said.

“I think that signals a desire to be more in the face of the students who are engaging in Israel education on campus and pro-Israel work,” he said. 

Still, the organization had more applicants than they had room for, Hillel staff said. 

Staff tried to ensure that they were taking students who after the trip would “have a wide enough network to share their experiences and influence people, and two, have an open mind and come into this experience being able to really grapple with challenging questions and issues,” said Jackie Levey, Hillel executive director. 

Bell said he first heard about the free trip on a group chat among black Wash U. students.

He was interested in going because he felt “Israel was very prevalent in American politics and not a lot of people know what’s going on there. My opinions on Israel weren’t fully formed.”

On the trip, the group — Hillel staff, 19 non-Jewish students and five Jewish students — made some of the common stops to places like the Western Wall and Masada, but they also went into the West Bank, which is territory that is disputed between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We can’t provide a nuanced picture of the complexity of the conflict by ignoring half the conversation,”  said Levey. 

Sahil Mehta, vice president of Wash U College Republicans, said he had previously heard mostly pro-Israel stances from Jewish friends. Of the meeting with the Palestinian Authority official, Mehta said he “felt like it was definitely a lot of propaganda, but it was rewarding to actually hear the perspective from him.”

He came away from the meeting thinking that in the near future “that this conflict doesn’t really have a solution. There is so much that needs to be worked out,” said Mehta, who grew up in a Hindu family in Dallas. 

He also was moved by a visit to a town along the border with Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization, filled with concrete buildings and bomb shelters. 

“About two hours after we left, there were 100 rockets fired into town and it kind of scared me and made the conflict feel really real,” said Mehta. 

There were also lighter moments on the trip. Tyrin Truong, a sophomore, fell in love with shawarma and went looking for it each day 

“Visiting Jerusalem was the most impactful part for me,” said Truong, a member of the Wash U. Student Union. “You go on the trip to learn more about the conflict, but it’s just nice to get away from the conflict for a while and see everyone living in unity — the Muslim quarters, the Jewish quarters, the Christian quarters.” As a Christian, he said visiting the Church of Holy Sepulchre and notable biblical sites made him think “about how my grandparents would have loved to have been there.”

Asheley Ashittey, a junior studying political science and African American studies, said she concluded that many people in the conflict “were just trying to live as normal a life as possible, which I found both amazing and also disturbing because you see a bunch of bomb shelters but also people going about their days.”

At the refugee camp, Ashittey, who is from New Jersey, saw Palestinians with keys to their parents or grandparents’ former homes in Israel. She felt that they were being somewhat misled by the Palestinian government and that there won’t be any residences for them to return to. 

“I just wonder what will happen to them in the long term,” she said.

Since returning to campus, Mehta said he has been to a number of events featuring speakers discussing Israel and the conflict. He adds that he pays closer attention to the anti-Israel stickers he sees on other students laptops. 

“It’s really opened my eyes to the hate against Israel,” Mehta said. 

Truong said the trip made him more committed to fight against anti-Semitism. 

“As a black guy, I know how it feels for people to hate you just for existing,” he said.

Ashittey said she has friends “on both sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it’s now “easier to engage in dialogue about Israel.”