Over winter break, a delegation of students visited Israel to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly from those who are most affected by it.
The program, Fact Finders, was hosted by Cleveland Hillel. According to their promotional materials, the trip is “an educational and eye-opening journey where you will engage and explore Israel beauty and complexity in a personal way,” where participants will discuss topics relating to history, culture, human rights and political issues through visiting a variety of places, including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem.
Nineteen students were chosen from over 60 applicants, ensuring that those who participated were from a variety of backgrounds and extracurricular involvements.
The itinerary took the students from one end of the country to the other. They spoke to representatives such as Miri Eisin, an Israeli negotiator who was involved in the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Iftah Burman, a geopolitics expert, and Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab journalist.
Elad Fraiman is a third-year biology major on the pre-med track. He originally applied for the trip because his parents were born and raised in the region, and he wanted to learn more about the conflict from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives.
Fraiman said the most challenging part of the trip was to be in the West Bank and to “confront my own bias about why I felt unsafe even though I didn’t experience anything that would make me feel that way.” The majority of the participants agreed that they came into the trip with a preconceived idea about one side of the conflict or the other, but by the end of the trip they were able to better understand where both sides were coming from.
Ibrahim Bazyan, a third-year psychology major on the pre-law track, said he decided to apply because “the trip was described as an opportunity to analyze and discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and being that I am Palestinian I wanted to explore the conflict outside of my narrative, as I never had the option to do so before.”
One of the hardest things for Bazyan was being exposed to the vast health and economic disparities caused by a lack of resources, in addition to seeing the children that get caught in the middle of the conflict.
Though the experience brought up some challenging ideas and thoughts, regardless of which side the person believed going in, everyone who attended still largely enjoyed the trip.
Fraiman said the best educational experience was talking to Ihab Balha, an Islamic Cleric, peace activist and educator. “Hearing his story about how he has worked to connect people coming from different backgrounds and having people share narratives and come to collective understanding was such a great experience
Bazyan acknowledged that the best part of the trip was the opportunity to analyze the conflict “at micro and macro levels on both sides. The ability to discuss the issue at both lenses offered me new perspectives that I would not have been able to obtain outside of this trip.”
Both Fraiman and Bazyan also noted that the food and the experience of getting to know their fellow students made the trip as amazing of an experience as it was.
While the CWRU trip was greatly enjoyed by all participants, not every college has faced the same acceptance from its students. The Fact Finders program at CWRU is a branch of a collection of trips funded by Maccabee Task Force (MTF). MTF as a whole has come under fire for its hidden pro-Israel agenda and public claim to be an equal view of both sides. However, because Hillel staff at the specific university are responsible for creating the itinerary of the trip, some colleges present a more balanced view than others. Participants on the CWRU Fact Finders trip agreed that the leaders of their trip tried their best to present an unbiased view of the conflict and allow the students themselves to sort through the facts and come up with their own opinions.
Bazyan said “Holistically, I believe that the trip attempted to be unbiased. Discussions were moderated in a way that was unbiased, and I greatly appreciate that. Yet, in realizing that Cleveland Hillel put on the trip, it is understandable that there are certain limitations in really exploring the West Bank. I believe that the students that went on the trip can now discuss the conflict on both sides of the spectrum, which is an outcome I would expect from an unbiased trip.”