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Finding a Calling: President’s Award Winner Seeks Peace

Benjamin Holtzman, AU’s 2022 President’s Award recipient, has found a calling to work on peace issues in the Middle East.

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AU President Sylvia M. Burwell and 2022 President's Award winner Benjamin Holtzman.

The path to discovering one’s calling is rarely linear. 

Benjamin Holtzman found his through a broken hip. 

A budding youth soccer player, Holtzman suffered a catastrophic injury while playing as an eighth grader in Los Angeles. The injury pushed Holtzman, now a graduating international studies and economics major in SIS and CAS, to a camp for Jewish children that hosted formative debates about geopolitics. 

Holtzman, AU’s 2022 President’s Award recipient, will walk across the stage at Bender Arena at AU’s 143rd Commencement shaped by those debates and a calling to work on peace issues in the Middle East. 

“Ben rose to the top of an incredible group of nominees for the President’s Award,” AU President Sylvia M. Burwell said. “An accomplished student scholar, an advocate for change, and a leader in the university community and beyond, Ben is truly a changemaker in a changing world, and I look forward to the impact he will have in the years to come." 

Holtzman had spent summers traveling to play soccer, so when he couldn’t play anymore, his mother sent him to a Jewish summer camp called Habonim Dror near Big Bear Lake, California. The camp featured the campers doing their own cooking and cleaning, and also gathering for deep, spirited political discussions. 

Holtzman did have a global interest with cultural ties to different continents and different ancestral groups of Judaism. His father’s family fled the Russian pogroms. His mother’s family is Tunisian and hid from Nazis during the German occupation of Tunisia in 1942-43. But the debates sharpened his focus. 

Holtzman vividly remembered his first discussion about prison reform and racism in the criminal justice system. He was 13. The camps offered an introduction into politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and inspired Holtzman to dig deeper into that field of study. He eventually made his first trip to Israel through the camp program. 

“It just hooked me,” Holtzman said. “Instead of being handheld into a topic, this was a full-frontal, deep introduction. I just fell in love with talking to people and finding points of disagreement and how we could build from that.” 

While Holtzman credits the camp with building the foundation of his interest in foreign policy, the camp offered theoretical conversations and no action to supplement the learning, he said.  

That action, he felt, could come from being in DC and engaging in foreign policy here, which led him to AU and SIS. 

And he’s found action at AU in the classroom and in the community. 

Holtzman co-founded AU’s March for Our Lives club which focuses on gun violence prevention and led outreach and planning for lobbying. He served as a student voice for American University’s Hillel board of directors. He also worked in multiple leadership roles, including secretary general of the AU Model UN Conference, which is the only inter-connected crisis simulation conference in the country and takes about 10 months to plan. 

Buoyed by a background as a student trustee on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board of education, Holtzman also has helped shape AU as a student trustee on AU’s Board of Trustees.  

He has worked as an intern at the AU Center for Israel Studies and currently serves as a research intern for former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill on the Council on Foreign Relations. The internship has placed him in meetings with current and former high-ranking government officials from both sides of the political aisle on the issue of America’s geopolitical pivot to Asia. The meetings take his theoretical experience and push him to further engage in current events. 

His academic distinctions are equally impressive: Phi Beta Kappa, 2022 Fulbright alternate, SIS honors program, State Department Critical Language Scholar in Arabic, Excellence in Thematic Studies Award for Foreign Policy and National Security, and Excellence in Regional Studies Award for the Middle East and North Africa, and Olson Scholar. 

Holtzman specifically highlighted the Olson Scholars program, which identifies high-performing first-year students and facilitates advanced research work in international studies in SIS. 

“The Olson Scholars Program is my favorite academic experience,” Holtzman said. “Some of the people I’ve met in there are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Students at that caliber thrive and build each other up through coordination and working together.” 

Holtzman has challenged himself academically and enriched the AU communities through his service work, juggling scholarship applications, and part-time work even since she first met him, said Paul Warrick, director of the Office of Merit Awards. “He is dedicated to international service and the cause of peace, and I believe that his academic excellence, devotion to service, and unfailing optimism will lead him to succeed,” Warrick said.   

Holtzman is waiting for news on fellowships and grants as he pursues his next step following graduation. But he knows his interest lies in the Middle East, forged through multiple trips to Israel, walking through the Arab and Christian quarters in Jerusalem and time spent in the West Bank and at the border of Gaza. 

He wants to change the discourse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make certain no voices are silenced. 

“If I were to take on a challenge after AU, I want to ensure both sides hear each other, understand where each side is coming from, and start to have conversations about what a future looks like,” Holtzman said.