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Campus News

Alternative Break Trip to Israel, Palestine, Shifts Students’ Perceptions

By Mike Unger

Photo: Students in Middle East

(Photo courtesy of AU Community Service Center)

Baltimore native Lauren Barr speaks out about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a voice now emboldened by the knowledge only first-hand experience can bring.

Barr ’11, an international relations major with a focus on the Middle East, recently co-led the alternative break trip Grassroots Peace Activism in Israeli and Palestinian Societies. As a high school student she visited Israel, and when she arrived at AU she founded a chapter of One Voice, an organization dedicated to empowering moderates on both sides of the conflict. So when Shoshanna Sumka, alternative break program coordinator, recruited Barr to co-lead the trip to Israel and Palestine, she leapt at the opportunity.

“I felt I had an obligation to go and find the truth for myself,” Barr said.

For a whirlwind two weeks in May, she and 14 classmates toured Israel and Palestine, meeting with activists working for peace, those trying to undermine it, and many people with positions in between. They absorbed as many differing opinions on the decades-long conflict as possible.

The truth, they discovered, is even more muddled than it appears.

“The emotional connection is to the land. It’s not a matter of what’s the rational solution, it’s how do you change hearts and minds to convince people that they’re going to have to compromise?” Barr said.

Interaction, not debate

The group first traveled to Jerusalem to meet with people from all walks of life and visit the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim portions of the city.

On their very first day students met with members of Parents Circle-Family Forum, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the violence. They also met with a member of the Israeli parliament and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, as well as enjoying a Shabbat dinner with ordinary Israeli families.

“I wanted it to be more of an interaction than a debate, and it was very much so,” said Nadia Osman ’11. Half-Egyptian, Osman grew up hearing the “pro-Palestinian side” of the conflict, so she wanted to travel to the region to learn more about the Israeli position for herself.

“We visited the Holocaust museum,” Osman said. “It’s similar to the one in D.C., but I felt very different when we walked in. A lot of people visiting were Jews. Here there are lots of different people from everywhere. There you look around and you can understand more the victim mentality that Jews feel, being oppressed for hundreds of years.”

In the West Bank the group met with a Palestinian politician and the director of USAID, toured a refugee camp, spoke with an Israeli settler, and spent the night in the homes of Palestinian families.

“Every person we met had a little different perspective and shared a different story,” Barr said. “The home stays made a definite impact. You lived a day in their life. You can’t really get that anywhere else.”

The group found time—a little bit—for some fun and relaxation as well. They hiked in Ein Gedi National Park, swam in the Dead Sea, and participated in a service-learning day with Ruwwad, a Palestinian youth group, in Ramallah.

Back home, the students are sorting through thousands of photographs and will produce a report to educate the AU community and others.

“I always knew seeing it for myself would be different,” Barr said. “But it’s far more complex a problem than I believed. Despite that, I met so many people who have inspired me by dedicating their life to peace. They’re doing the work that will be the foundation for the future.”