Learning the Complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Campus editors and leaders at Jordan Valley College with students from the school. (Courtesy of Jennie Nau)

Published: Febrary 14, 2008

“Oops…I did it again.”

Twenty-three American college newspaper editors and campus leaders were huddled around a bonfire with students from the Ashalim Student Village in The Negev (the southern portion of Israel that is mostly comprised of desert) singing campfire songs.  And what was the most popular song of the night? One of Britney Spears’ most famous songs.

“I played with your heart, got lost in the game, Oh baby, baby…,” the group sang out into the desert night.

One of the Israeli students strummed the chords of the popular tune, and another beat a small bongo drum, which added a new twist to the song while keeping everyone on beat.  The Israelis knew the words to “Oops…I did it again” as well as the Americans did, and the singing got louder and louder as the song progressed.  Without hesitation, when the chorus was over, we started singing it again.

On this particular day, while participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s 2007 Campus Editors and Leaders Mission Trip to Poland and Israel, the group departed from Jerusalem and drove southwest to Sderot, the area of Israel that the Gaza Strip bombs daily.  After learning about the various rockets that have hit the area, we traveled to Be’er Sheva to meet with Major Uri Bar Lev, the commander of the southern district of the Israeli Police.  From there, we met with the Association for the Promotion of Bedouin Women at Ben Gurion University and then drove a half hour into the desert, to join the students of Ashalim for dinner.  After dinner, we made the two-hour journey to the Dead Sea.

The trip’s mission was to provide America’s future journalists and leaders with first-hand experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this is just a taste of what our daily schedule was like.  Most days we were up at 6:15 a.m., ate breakfast at 7 a.m., and immediately after, boarded the bus, on our way to our first destination of the day.  Our days were power-packed, meeting with Israeli journalists, Palestinian journalists, members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), and visiting sites such as the Western Wall, Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial and the Security Fence. I was so tired by the end of each day that I happily dropped off to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

But for the 10 editors who took part in the trip, our first stop was Poland.  In Warsaw, we visited the Jewish Cemetery, saw what is left of the Warsaw Ghetto and had dinner at the Israeli ambassador to Poland’s house.  On our way to Krakow, however, our bus failed to stop in time, smashing a small red car, which contained a family of four, into an empty flatbed in front of us.  Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the crash did garner the attention of a group of construction workers who stopped what they were doing and came over to investigate the situation.

Our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was undoubtedly the most moving experience in Poland.  I was fairly familiar with the camps and the events that had taken place there during World War II, but actually walking through a gas chamber and a crematorium truly made me understand the magnitude of the Holocaust.  By the time we made it to Birkenau, I was nauseous. My nausea continued to get worse as we walked along the railroad tracks, and our tour guide pointed out each one of the gas chambers and crematoriums.  When the tour was over, I walked back to the bus as fast as I could.  My feet were numb, my nausea had reached its pinnacle, and I was ready to cry.

We arrived in Israel the next day and joined the leaders mission participants, who had spent the first two days touring the Old City of Jerusalem.  This is when we met Yoni, the greatest tour guide that has ever lived.  I say this not knowing a large number of tour guides, but his knowledge of Israel is more than impressive, his hilarious and often crude stories continued to make us laugh even when we were so tired we could barely keep our eyes open and his overall friendly, personal demeanor made him a pleasure to spend seven days with.  He was more of a friend than a tour guide to our group, and our experience would not have been the same without him.  I can safely say that every one of us misses Yoni and his famous greeting, “Wakey, wakey leader and editors,” which he said over the bus microphone every time we were arriving at our next destination.

The morning after our dinner and campfire songs with the students at Ashalim, we donned bathing suits and braced ourselves for the cold, salty water of the Dead Sea.  The water was as cold as the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter, but when you’re at the Dead Sea, you just run with it.  My friend Larissa and I counted one, two, three, leaned back and let the thick salt water do the rest.  The freezing water coursed over my entire body as my feet flew up, and I landed in a position that looked as if I was sitting a chaise lounge.  To make the experience that much better, we took turns holding that morning’s copy of Haaretz, a daily Israeli newspaper, pretending that we were reading it while floating as Yoni took pictures of us.

Tel Aviv was our last stop before boarding our plane home.  It was the perfect end to a long, tiring and emotional two-week journey.  Even though it was too cold to go in the water, I walked up and down the beach admiring the large, colorful kites that flew in the sky and the few people who were brave enough to go swimming. I was completely relaxed as I wandered around eating my Bueno Bar flavored gelato I’d purchased from a shop across the street from the beach. During my four-hour stay, I fell in love with Tel Aviv, and I’m looking forward to visiting again when it’s warmer and the beach life is in full swing.

Twenty-four hours later, we were descending into John F. Kennedy International Airport without a bump.  I was so close to home and happy to be back in my concrete jungle, yet part of me wished the trip wasn’t over.  I couldn’t explain the feeling while sitting in my middle seat on the plane, and I still can’t explain the feeling now.  I have a special connection to the places I visited and the people I met that won’t soon be forgotten.