A few weeks ago, we returned from a nine-day trip to Israel with nine pro-Israel student activists. All of us had previously been to Israel at least once, but no one had been on an educational trip like the Campus Ambassadors Mission.
The trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. We met with diverse speakers, whose backgrounds ranged across the political and demographic spectrums, providing us with a well-rounded view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip consisted of political discussions with Knesset members, social-justice dialogues with LGBTQIA+ community liaisons and strategic conversations with military figures, among other topics. We did this with the purpose of creating and shaping our own personal “Israel stories,” which will allow us to become more effective pro-Israel advocates on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Instead of just spewing facts and numbers, we can share our memories, reactions and actual conversations with those immersed in the conflict.
Some highlights of the trip included receiving a guided tour along the separation fence from one of its key architects, Col. Dan Tirza; visiting Gush Etzion, an Israeli settlement, to hear the perspective of a resident; and being briefed about the global Iranian threat by Dr. Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
Among our most impactful experiences, we visited an Israeli community on the border of Gaza called Nativ Ha’asara and met with a resident, Tsameret Zamir. The community was one of the first to feel the impact of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Her peaceful life was swiftly disrupted, and seeing rockets fired across the sky became part of her daily reality. One day, this looming threat became very real when she watched her children get on the school bus as the rocket sirens sounded. They were not able to reach a bomb shelter, but fortunately they were unharmed.
Moments like this inspired her to cope through artistic expression by using the vast space on the Israel-Gaza separation wall as a platform for a large mosaic. The wall continuously reminded her of fear, so in response, she painted on the wall, “Path to Peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Visitors can personally contribute to the art by gluing a ceramic tile with a personal peace message onto the artwork. For Tsameret, the mosaic serves as a metaphor for hope and togetherness, as the whole is much more beautiful than its parts.
The following day, we visited the Galil School for coexistence in Pittsburgh’s partnership region of Karmiel and Misgav. The school is designed for educating Arab and Jewish students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Students are taught by both Jewish and Arab instructors, who teach in Hebrew and Arabic. The school promotes children of all backgrounds to play, learn and live together peacefully.
Watching the children learn about one another’s cultures instilled hope in us. Inclusion and diversity is an issue across the world — Pitt’s campus included — and the Galil School sets an example for all of us.
On the sixth day of our trip, we had the opportunity to travel to the West Bank. We visited Rawabi, the first planned city built for and by the Palestinians. Located near Ramallah, it will house more than 50,000 people across six neighborhoods. From an outsider’s point of view, this newly developed city looked more like a vacation spot. In addition to the modern apartments, there was a Greek-style amphitheater, a zip-line course, a bungee jump and more.
We met with Rawabi’s lead entrepreneur, Bashar Masri, who believes the city will be a global symbol of Palestinian growth and independence. He explained that he hopes to financially partner with Israel for the remainder of the building process and beyond. One of the city’s many goals, he said, is to be a bridge between the Palestinian and Israeli economies. Masri recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and is in favor of a two-state solution.
We also visited Dr. Mahammad Dajani, founder of Wasatia, a moderate form of Islam. As a former professor at the University of Jerusalem, he inspired students to take part in his movement. He encouraged his students to not only learn about the Jewish heritage, but also to respect its values. It was inspirational to listen to the risks that he has taken, including taking university students to visit concentration camps in Poland. Although he was stripped of his professional teaching position and was deemed reckless by many of his community members for his actions, he still continues to promote moderate practices to young Palestinians.
Most of the speakers had an overarching vision of peace, so why has peace not been achieved? Though there is no clear answer, it is encouraging to know that so many Israelis and Palestinians are working together toward a better future.
Our journey left us with a pro-Israel narrative heavily influenced by the dozens of accounts we heard. Those stories are now our stories. We plan to share these stories because, more often than not, we forget about the humanity behind the conflict. Although our narrative alone is not enough for the path to peace, we must join forces with as many allies as possible — campus organizations, community members and others — in forming pro-Israel and pro-peace coalitions.
Wendy Levenson, a Pittsburgh native, is a mathematics major at the University of Pittsburgh. Sydney Pacelli is a neuroscience major at the University of Pittsburgh and is president of Hillel Jewish Student Union.