- Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
I studied abroad in Tel Aviv, Israel at Tel Aviv University from January to June of 2016. While there I took Hebrew ulpan classes as well as regular semester classes in English and toured the country. Though I lived in Tel Aviv, I had the opportunity to travels to all areas in Israel both through my university and in independent travels with my friends and family.
- What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
I went to Israel, but I am not Jewish and that was really weird for a lot of people. I never really had a clear picture of why I wanted to study abroad in Tel Aviv; even when I boarded the plane at JFK with the most Jewish people I had ever seen in my life I still didn’t know why or really where I was going. Twelve hours later when I stepped off a bus and onto a clean, safe and entirely misrepresented campus, I realized that I was in for something so special I could have never begun to anticipate it. Because of the network I developed while at Ohio State, I feel that I went to Israel with an understanding of the situation on the ground better than most. I knew that it wasn’t a war zone, I knew that people weren’t laying in the streets dying and I knew that I will still terrified because of a terrorist shooting in a bar in Tel Aviv which occurred just weeks before I went. I did not have an understanding of the history of the Jewish people, Zionism or the Palestinian experience. I did not understand why people act with such vigor in regards to Israel – harsh disgust or blind devotion were the only sides I had ever seen. While I can never say that I am literate in these ideals and questions, I am confident in saying that I am on my way to becoming culturally competent.
I come from an affluent, white background and have not experienced real persecution in my life nor have I really ever seen it. In Israel, I began learning about the Jewish people – a people I have studied in my Sunday school classes since I can remember – and pushed myself to empathize with them to learn why things are the way they are. I now understand that while I will never know what it’s like to be outside of myself, it’s good to cry my eyes out on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) for people I will never have the chance to know. It’s good to believe that what so many educated and capable people say to be true, is a sad expression of age old anger and bigotry. It’s good to feel passionate about reconciling a problem which does not and likely will not ever impact my day to day life because if I learned anything in Israel, other than the difficulty which is speaking a Semitic language & that it is possible to eat that much hummus, it’s that this little tiny hot bed of problems is worth all my efforts to protect and revere.
- What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
Going to Israel, I was extremely unfamiliar with Jewish culture. I knew some of the high holidays and that men wore little hats, but that’s really it. I had taken some world history classes so I knew that Jews played the role of the scapegoat throughout history. I knew that 60 years ago, this idea was still very prevalent and that Anti-Semitism was alive and well throughout our world. While thought I knew these tidbits, I quickly learned that I knew absolutely nothing. Upon meeting my Jewish roommates – two from the US and one from the Netherlands – I learned that all three of them had connections directly to the Holocaust and my roommate from Amsterdam lived in a situation where she was threatened because she exercised her culture at a Jewish school and camps. I was immediately amazed that I had come this close to such a dark place in history. Little did I know, that my roommates were far from unique in the community of which I had just asked to become a part.
I enrolled in a Middle Eastern studies which focused on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and quickly became rapt in the ambiguity, and lack there of, which enshrouds “Eretz Israel.” I began attending lectures hosted by StandWithUs, an international Israeli education organization based in Jerusalem with a mission of educating people about the situation on the ground so as to avoid Anti-Israeli sentiment and support a reasonable resolution to the struggle for land. After a semester of being heartbroken and then immediately put in joyful awe by people and their beliefs about this jubilant little country I felt like I discovered, I had the opportunity to go for a walk with the man who changed my view on everything.
I took a tour of the Security Barrier with the chief architect, Danny Tirza. He had met with president of many nations, Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Obama (when they each had the roles), as well as much of PLO leadership including Yasser Arafat. He talked about the 400-some mile long barrier and all the misconceptions associated with it. My favorite he “de-bunked” was one held by most likely every American – the idea that the security barrier is a 9 meter tall concrete wall like the one shown constantly on TV when they talk about it. It is actually so only for ~5% of the 400+ miles. The concrete wall is only in densely populated areas where there are not 200 meters on the Israeli side of the boarder – the amount of space required for the barrier. The barrier consists of a smaller fence (really, not that tall) with barbed wire and 15 meters of sand on the Israeli side next to a road where only Israeli security forces and licensed individuals can drive. After this there is a large “dead zone” of nothing. This is there because if someone touches the fence or gets metal close to the fence, an alert goes off and security move to respond. If the fence was crossed, the direction of travel can be seen in the sand and there is enough time to find the individual before he reaches the other side of the dead zone.
I learned that in making the barrier, many Arab neighborhoods asked to be on the Israeli side, which I thought was interesting until I learned more – then it just made sense. Building the wall took a very long time because Tirza and his team had to be so particular with each and every fence post placement, finding a location on which both Israel and the PLO could agree – which they did, on every fence post. I learned about the technology behind security checkpoints and watched people living in Bethlehem, a now almost totally Arab city, cross into Jerusalem to go to work and about their daily business through a checkpoint which had already stopped 12 individuals with explosives strapped to their bodies this year (at the time of my tour). The architects had taken care to ensure the safety of all individuals, not just staff but also each individuals going through the checkpoint. It was immense and greatly satisfying to know that the people wanted it and it had been done for them in a way which was not at all degrading or overly time consuming – a huge misconception in our part of the world.
Seeing this was painful for me both because there is such need for the security barrier to exist and because there are such misunderstandings around its existence and the intentions of the Jewish State. Only a short time after, I had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem where my feelings about Israel were solidified and my heart once again broke for the lies surrounding her people. This tour gave me, for the first time, I a true glimpse into what was the lost. It was so much more than lives. I have never felt like this affected me too much; I was, of course, mad at the Nazis and sad for the Jews, but that never really meant anything outside of the history class. But then, being in Israel, it meant something totally different and not just because you may see a man or woman with their number tattooed to their arm walking down the street or because your friend’s grandparents were murdered by Nazis. It has to mean something totally different because during the Holocaust, when the Jews were being targeted and Israel was not yet a state, the Jews were cut off from coming to the land of Israel. It was forbidden from them through White Papers restricting Jewish immigration and while some made it, million and millions did not.
There have been many controversial comments about Jews not fighting back and if they had had guns it wouldn’t have happened and whatever – what I have learned this past week is that many did fight back, within their ghettos and in the camps. Today it is a very proud thing in Israel for the Jews to be able to defend themselves as a people for the first time in thousands of years. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, against any threat.”
- Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
This experience was valuable for a number of reason – from preparing me to live independently after graduation and exercising my mind in learning a new language to making new friends I would not have otherwise met and testing the relationships I have a home with such a distance. Since coming back to the US, I have continued to engage in Israel advocacy and study Hebrew. I have accepted a job offer with an international consulting firm and plan to pursue the opportunity to work in their Herzaliya office, just north of Tel Aviv. After going to Israel, I feel much more connected the people I before knew nothing abou t. I now understand the conflict in the Middle East so much better and am more prepared to recognize and fight bias, be it Anti-Semitic, Anti-Islamic or Anti-Eastern. I believe that this study abroad has set the tone in which I desire to live my life. I look forward to returning to Israel soon and learning more about such an entangled part of our world.
For more information, check out the blog I kept while I was there: A Studying Broad Tumblr