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Students return from West Bank

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Front Page


After weeks of planning, a student delegation from Brandeis University visited the Palestinian Territories over February break. The $28,500 trip was largely funded by former President Jimmy Carter, who challenged students in 2007 to “visit the occupied territories for a few days to determine whether I have exaggerated or incorrectly described the plight of the Palestinians” in his book Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid.

“We made a conscious decision to make this trip as meaningful and successful as possible by focusing on one narrative,” said Justin Kang, organizer of the group Students Crossing Borders, who explained the delegation’s decision to focus on the living conditions of Palestine.

The delegation was comprised of Kang, Student Union President Shreeya Sinha ’09, former Union President Alison Schwartzbaum ’08, Union Treasurer Choon Woo Ha ’08, Racial Minority Senator Gabe Gaskin ’08, Benjamin Bechtolsheim ’10, Rajiv Ramakrishnan ’10, Deborah Laufer ’08, Ben Mernick ’09, and native Israelis Lisa Hanania ’11 and Noam Shouster ‘11, who were the group’s Arabic translators.

When asked if the Union ties of majority of the delegation might homogenize the trip, Schwartzbaum acknowledged that, “many…used to be involved with the Student Union[;] however, try to lump us together under any other sort of category…and you’ll see that it’s much more difficult to put us all in the same box.”

Kang added that the 11-person delegation was selected from the 20 members of the delegation’s planning committee because “we wanted everyone who was on the delegation to contribute to the planning process.”

Aides from the Carter Center in Atlanta did supply suggested destinations for the trip, but very few of those were in SCB’s final itinerary. “[The Carter Center memo was] a starting point, but we did our own research,” Kang said. “We had no stipulations for the grant…[except] to create a report.”

According to the group’s itinerary, the delegation spent their first three days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where they toured Mt. Zion, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter, and visited Brandeis’ sister school, Al-Quds University and its Center for Political Prisoners’ Affairs. Continuing through Bethlehem, Hebron, Mas’ha, and Ramallah, the delegates then slept with host families in the Dheisheh refugee camp and met with Palestinian Authority presidential runner-up Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Amal Jadou, the U.S. foreign policy advisor to PA president Mahmoud Abbas, and Omar Barghouti and Jamal Juma, both involved in the Palestinian boycott/divestment campaign. The trip concluded with a two-day stay in Neve Shalom, a mixed Jewish-Arab border community called the “Oasis of Peace.”

Speaking about his experience, Laufer said, “I took [this trip] as an opportunity to be educated on ‘the other side,’ but I learned there was no other side…I heard things I didn’t agree with[,] that standard textbooks wouldn’t agree with—the line between opinion and fact is very blurred.” Still, she said, “instead of being critical and defensive, we have to learn…the nuance of what everyone’s saying—and not saying—is so complex that it is easy to misinterpret…there’s about three million shades of gray.”

Schwartzbaum said that the trip enhanced her ability to listen to opposing views. “I am no longer interested in…villainizing [the Palestinians],” she said. “They are frustrated, and with good reason, and I see that more clearly.” She added, “I’m also more annoyed than ever with the terms ‘pro-Israel,’ ‘anti-Israel,’ ‘pro-Palestinian,’ et cetera. [They] make it harder to have meaningful conversations.”

Gaskin stated, “what I brought back and remains in my mind is power, and how that’s related to privilege and responsibility. The Israeli government has a lot of power in terms of its military…a lot of power begets a lot of responsibility.” He was especially moved by the change of atmosphere in the Arab section of Hebron—“there were less shops, tons of barbed wire, even in places they didn’t need it”—as well as the Al-Quds museum, where a friend told him, “how loosely the laws can be interpreted…maybe they do exist, maybe they don’t.”

Shouster, a Neve Shalom resident herself, said this trip proved the violence in the Territories portrayed in the media was only a vocal minority, whereas the majority were “people who are struggling to live a normal life. [While] nothing in life is really objective[,] people don’t even have an idea of the [Palestinians’ situation].”

Hanania agreed, saying “security comes through peace…you can’t force peace on people—you can’t expect these people to be nonviolent, even if they are.” Hanania criticized the wall separating Israel and the Territories, saying that as an Israeli citizen, she was able to enter illegally; during a car ride on the trip, “we would give four passports instead of five. Sometimes, they won’t check. A terrorist can wake up at 3am and [do the same]. For me, [the wall is] just making things worse.”

Schwartzbaum didn’t think the nature of the group affected the stories they heard. She commented, “I think that most people wanted us to share their stories and let the world know how difficult their lives are.” Sinha, meanwhile, said “the stories that impacted me the most were the day to day stories of the people. Politics, of course, you have to take with a pinch of salt.”

Kang, felt that the trip was successful, due to the safety and open-mindedness of the delegates. “Hopefully we can make it a more open dialogue,” he said. “It means a lot for people who aren’t curious about this topic to come up and ask me how the trip went…it means a lot for me to be engaged in this topic.”