Opinion: How Israel, Palestine changed my life

Evan Cerne-Iannone

Walking in the streets of occupied Bethlehem, I was not ready for the sheer height and magnitude of the separation wall.

Yet, it still crept up on me.

As we got close, I confided to my Palestinian companions that I never got to see the Berlin Wall. They replied, “Well, this is the closest possible thing.”

All of a sudden, I realized that Israeli soldiers’ eyes followed us from the watchtowers above the wall; it made me nervous.

I took a picture of a soldier in the tower. While my photo captured nothing special, I wanted to document the moment I realized how incredible this experience truly was.

It was also when I grasped the devastating impact Israel’s 50-year-old occupation has on five million Palestinians. Nearly 25 years of the Oslo Accords had produced only more movement restrictions and securitization for Palestinians.

This was but the first of many remarkable encounters that I experienced throughout a two-week study abroad course, “Conflict Resolution in Israel and Palestine,” last May.

I am still asked by friends and family why I would agree to travel to Israel/Palestine.

“Isn’t it violent and dangerous there?”

This question, while well-meaning, does not reflect the situation on the ground. Throughout my trip, I only ever felt uncomfortable once and that incident involved a racist Israeli settler who threatened our Palestinian driver for taking us to a location that unmasked the apartheid. Travel broadens the mind, and if American students actually listened to Palestinians, their biases and stereotypes would quickly collapse.

When Case Western Reserve University political science professor Pete Moore told me about the Kent State study abroad course, my curiosity peaked. During the course of the conversation, I asked him if Case’s study abroad office had ever organized a similar trip.

He replied that not only had Case never done it, but most American universities have not either. Either the topic is considered to be too political or they do not want students traveling to a “risky” part of the world.

The deciding factor for me to go was the unique and diverse itinerary that the Kent State professor designed. I had heard of most of the places we were scheduled to visit (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Jericho, Bethlehem, Beersheba and Haifa).

These places sit at the heart of the conflict, and the trip was an opportunity for me to see them with my own eyes. While an initial glance at the exhausting syllabus might make the most adventurous student groan, travel fatigue was a small price to pay for this extraordinary experience. I was never going to understand the situation entirely but this course in Israel/Palestine helped me get closer than I ever believed possible.

The course consisted of three major components: daily excursions, briefings by Israeli and Palestinians non-governmental organizations, activists, politicians and students, as well as guest lectures by academics and analysts from groups like Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group.

The excursions taught our group about different aspects of the conflict, and no two excursions were the same.

For example, one day we received the political tour of Jerusalem’s Old City. Another day, we visited the Wailing Wall, entered the Al-Aqsa compound as guest of the Palestinian Waqf and watched Christian pilgrims worship in ancient churches.

We visited an art gallery. We went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center. In Nazareth, we took a demographic tour. We walked in Palestinian refugee camps and met the people that live there.

We saw Israeli gentrification of old Palestinian neighborhoods in Haifa. We visited the beaches of the Dead Sea and Jaffa. We traveled all the time, which came as a surprise to some of the Israeli students we met.

In less than 15 days, we managed to visit most of the sites deemed significant with respect to the history and politics of the conflict. These visits were rewarding for me because they allowed me to see with my own eyes many of the complex issues which I had only read about. In addition, these excursions enabled me to interact with Israelis and Palestinians, which allowed me to put a human face to the conflict.

Professionally, the lectures and briefings affected me because they revealed a career path in Middle East studies. Before the trip, I had convinced myself there was no viable career path in the social sciences.

Meeting and listening to people there changed this for me.

The briefings and exchanges improved my understanding of the situation, rendering me more capable of comprehending and articulating arguments about the situation.

The course abroad also broadened my ability to visualize what a possible career path could look like, which, in turn, made me more confident that I can continue to research and study politics, societies and conflicts for a living.

Now, I want to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and return to the region for a much longer period of time.

Without equivocation, no other course I have taken has had such a large impact on me in personal, academic and human capacities as the Israel/Palestine study abroad course. While I am still attempting to process what we saw and did, the one thing I know is I will go back to continue the transformation that started last May.

Evan Cerne-Iannone is a guest columnist and Case Western Reserve University international studies and history student. Contact him at [email protected]