Pittsburgh college students gain perspectives on conflict during Middle East trip
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Middle EastLearning outside the classroom

Pittsburgh college students gain perspectives on conflict during Middle East trip

Visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah offer 'instructive yet challenging' path toward nuance

Pittsburgh college students visit the Temple Mount. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC
Pittsburgh college students visit the Temple Mount. Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC

After visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories, Pittsburgh college students returned to campus with some clarity but no answers regarding the regional conflict.

From May 11-22, students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University toured Middle Eastern religious sites, spoke with researchers and residents and listened to competing narratives regarding history, land, culture and goals.

The fully subsidized trip, which was supported by Hillel JUC, gave 19 student leaders a chance to “learn and experience Israel and the Palestinian territories in a close-up and firsthand way,”

Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO, said. “It was about providing students a more nuanced and deeper appreciation of the complexity of the region beyond anything they could encounter in the classroom or from social media headlines.”

Isabel Lam, a political science and economics major at Pitt, said the program — which was called “Perspectives” — offered a substantive experience far surpassing her prior study.

Since high school, Lam has followed “modern” Israeli history, including Netanyahu’s return to power and the current judiciary situation.

She joined Perspectives, she said, “to see how much more I didn’t know, because you don’tknow what you don’t know.”

Lam’s takeaway was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not an easy issue,” she said. “It is complex and it was tough to hear both sides. Both sides had the motivation to fight for their country, to fight for their people. Both sides have been persecuted. People are hurting and it was hard to hear about all the innocents who have died.”

For Asher Alvaré Goodwin, a computer engineering major at Pitt, visits to Bethlehem and Ramallah were instructive yet challenging.

Before each excursion, Goodwin disabled Hebrew notifications from his phone, unlatched his Star of David necklace, removed his yarmulke from his backpack and left his jewelry, head covering, Rav Kav (Israeli public transportation card) and other culturally identifiable items at the hotel. On each entrance into the West Bank, he asked fellow travelers to refer to him as Chris instead of Asher.

“Some people might say that’s too much, but that’s what I did,” he said. “I thought the experience was valuable enough for me to put these things aside so I could see something with my own eyes.”

IDF soldiers near a border fence. Photo by Isabel Lam

Goodwin said he listened to presentations during which Jews were described as “invaders” and Palestinians were called “the descendants of Cannanites.”

“The straight-up negation of my identity was hard to hear, but it gave me a general idea of what many people’s ideas were,” he said.

Goodwin, a self-described “confrontational person,” said he desperately wanted to counter and denounce anti-Zionist statements but elected to stay mum.

Practicing self-restraint, he said, offered a priceless lesson.

“When you’re hearing someone’s narrative, it doesn’t matter if they are factually correct or not, that’s their narrative — you’re not going to argue with them, you’re not going to disprove them,” he said. The value of quietly listening is that “you can begin to hear them and rationalize what the next steps would be for someone who is operating under that narrative.”

Quentin Romero Lauro, a computer science student at Pitt, said that among Perspectives’ numerous benefits was purposeful exposure to uncomfortable positions.

“We live in a world of nuance where things are never cut and dry,” he said. “People cling to extremes because we never listen to the other side, so being able to communicate and understand others is the first step to respecting that nuance.”

Perspectives participants wrote messages on stones and pasted them to the “Path to Peace” wall. Photo by Isabel Lam

Kari Exler, Hillel JUC’s assistant director, said participants — both Jewish and non-Jewish — were selected because they are “changemakers on campus” and have influence among nearly 100 different student organizations at Pitt and CMU.

Jake Lorenz, a political science major specializing in international relations with a certificate in global studies conflict and security at Pitt, said he felt “energized and motivated to bring his experiences to campus.”

The goal isn’t necessarily to disprove radical positions “but to educate and have productive dialogue,” he said.

Like the other travelers, Romero Lauro returned to the States three days ago.

He told the Chronicle thathe saw that a friend had posted an accusation against the “whole Israeli people” on social media.

Romero Lauro said he invited his friend to have a conversation about the post and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do this before Perspectives because I knew so little about the issue,” he said. “Now I feel like I am in a place where I can talk about it.”

Romero Lauro said he reached out — knowing full well that spending 10 days in Israel and the Palestinian territories still means “I hold a position of ignorance that people there don’t” — with the goal of having a “respectful” conversation.

He said his friend hasn’t replied. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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