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Students Study Culture & Politics on CIS’s Journey to the Middle East Program

From May 15 to June 3, OU CIS professors Joshua Landis and D Gershon Lewental led a group of OU students on the trip of a lifetime — Journey to the Middle East: Israel & Palestine. Over the course of these three weeks, the group enjoyed stays in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Tiberius, took day trips to historic, religious and cultural sites and learned about current politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Students not only made wonderful memories, but also gained insight into an important and complex part of the world.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a critical part of US foreign relations in the Middle East,” explains Landis, who directs the OU Center for Middle East Studies. “There is no better way to get a full appreciation for the main currents of modern history and the complexity of the conflict than to start by visiting.”

Learning through Experiences & Connections

Students on the program completed two courses: Landis’s International Relations in the Middle East and Lewental’s History, Politics and Society of Israel and the Palestinians. The program itinerary is designed to promote experiential learning, meaning students learned on-the-go through site visits and meetings with locals. To gain historical perspective, the group explored the battlegrounds of the Arab-Israeli wars, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and a WWI graveyard in the Negev Desert; to gain an understanding of current government, they visited the seat of the Palestinian government in the West Bank and the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) in Jerusalem, where they met with five Knesset members. Meetings with gay rights advocates, a former director of military intelligence and a national security adviser to the Prime Minister were equally illuminating.

But it was meetings with ordinary citizens in their own communities, Landis says, that proved the most memorable. “We visited with Druze, Circassian, Christian, Baha’i and Ahmadi villages to speak with their community leaders and learn how religious minorities live in Israel,” he explains. “This was one of the most interesting parts of the trip because Israel is so unlike the United States in some ways.” The students heard from these local leaders how different religions strive to preserve their distinctness and separate cultures, and also learned how modernization is impacting these communities through the younger generation.

Beautiful city of Tel Aviv

Study Abroad in a Time of Conflict

Journey to the Middle East coincided with a tense period in Israeli-Palestinian relations, a confrontation along the Gaza border that resulted in the bloodiest day of conflict since 2014. Though the Journey to the Middle East group did decide to cancel a trip to a border city, they remained safe and far from the violence. One thing the students realized, Lewental notes, is that the scenes of conflict shown in the media don’t necessarily represent the day-to-day experience of the Israeli and Palestinian people. “The trip was enlightening for demonstrating how the violence that one hears and reads about in the news can create a distorted picture of life that for most Israelis and Palestinians is largely calm,” he says.

To better understand the ongoing occupation and conflict, the Journey to the Middle East group had the rare opportunity to spend two evenings with Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists, with whom they discussed the ongoing occupation and possible solutions. “We asked pointed questions and, although the debate could become contentious, we witnessed the fault lines between communities as well as their ability to speak frankly to each other,” explains Landis.

Candid of the group visiting an Hospitaller Fortress in Akko (Acre)

Religion & Food

In addition to learning about politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, students also had the opportunity to visit religious landmarks and enjoy local cuisine — two activities that offered an abundance of cultural insight. The group visited most of Jerusalem’s major religious sites, including The Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, Temple Mount, Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and witnessed how different religions converge in the city.

For OU junior Clark Barrus, these visits were the highlight of the program. “Our trip to Temple Mount and getting to see the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque was incredible,” he says. “The level of importance of these different sites was almost palpable, and it was truly something that I had never seen or experienced before. It helped me to start to grasp just how different cultures can be and the different ways that those cultures can interact.”

On one evening, the group observed the close connection between religion, food and politics during a special dining experience with locals. “One of the students' favorite evenings was an iftar dinner, or the breaking of fast at Ramadan, in a Palestinian village,” Landis notes. “We heard from village leaders about their experiences and how they abandoned violent struggle and turned to dialogue and modest goals of coexistence.”

Throughout the trip, students also dove headfirst into the local cuisine, enjoying Arab/Israeli food in restaurants, home-cooked meals in private homes and Mediterranean-side sunset dinners.

An Eye-opening Journey

This combination of connecting with locals, sightseeing and cultural activities and studying the region’s politics makes the Journey to the Middle East program a truly unique learning experience. By studying the Middle East, Landis explains, students can better understand the world as a whole. “Both Israelis and Palestinians are passionate and aggressive nationalists who have engaged in a bitter struggle over land, water and demography — the sort of struggle that characterizes so much of the developing world,” he says. “Our trip to Israel and Palestine highlights these contested histories.”

Barrus feels that the trip changed his perspective. “I have a hard time expressing how much this trip taught me about how much more there is to learn about the world, and especially the Middle East,” he says. “Learning about how vastly different world views, cultures and religions are compared to the US was eye-opening to me, and I feel [the program] prepared me to be a more internationally literate person.”

Visiting the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) with Deputy Minister and Member of Knesset Michael Oren

Interested in studying abroad on one of our CIS Journey Programs? For more information and to begin the application process, Visit the Education Abroad website.

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