Most Elis consulted newspapers, television reports and online media for news of Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted after the Dec. 19 expiration of a six-month truce.
But over winter break, 14 Yale students got a more personal view of one side of the conflict.
As part of a trip organized by Yale Hillel under the auspices of Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that funds educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, the students spent 10 days traveling in the Holy Land. Although smaller-scale fighting between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas started when the truce first expired, the conflict — which to date has left 13 Israelis and more than 900 Palestinians dead — began in earnest on Dec. 27, the day the Birthright group left the U.S.
“I don’t think anyone was aware at that point what that would become,” Birthright participant Courtney Sender ’10 said.
And while the Yale students were safely outside the range of attacks, they said their daily interactions with local Israelis gave them a greater sense of personal investment in the conflict.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT?
In line with Birthright’s safety procedures, the students traveled at all times with a security guard, as well as an Israeli tour guide and two Hillel staff members who maintained contact with Birthright headquarters, Yale Hillel staffer and trip leader Abby Phelps wrote in an e-mail. In addition, seven Israeli soldiers accompanied the students as part of a “mifgash” — the Hebrew word for “encounter” or “cultural exchange” — Phelps explained, adding that no extra personnel were added due to the conflict in Gaza.
With the exception of driving once through the West Bank, the group — which shared a bus with students from three other universities — stayed mainly in the northern and eastern parts of Israel, always outside the range of Hamas missile fire, Sean Owczarek ’11 explained. “They definitely were keeping an eye out for us, and that’s part of Birthright’s policy,” he said. “I personally felt very safe.”
The closest the group came to Gaza was Tel Aviv, about 50 miles to the north, Ben Bernard ’11 added.
But despite the students’ distance from the fighting, Beth Reisfeld ’09 said she felt somewhat afraid on the night of Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza. The Yalies were staying in Jerusalem, which, as Israel’s capital and largest city, she feared might be particularly susceptible to an attack.
Most of the trip’s participants interviewed said they had not been aware that the Israeli-Palestinian truce, in place since June, was set to expire just one week before their trip. But Phelps said she expressed to the students in December her confidence that they would be safe. “No participant had ever come to any harm due to any security-related issues” since Birthright’s founding in 2000, she added.
Still, the attacks in and near the Gaza Strip did result in some changes to the students’ itinerary.
“At least once a day we had an activity that was cancelled or a route that was diverted,” Reisfeld noted, though she said some changes were made in response to weather or road problems rather than fighting.
Birthright evaluated and updated the group’s itinerary continuously and made immediate changes in response to heightened risk or security concerns, Phelps added.
A TASTE OF LIFE IN ISRAEL
While the seven students interviewed said they felt physically safeguarded from the fighting, they said their interactions with Israelis on the ground gave them a taste of life in a country that is often at war.
The seven Israeli soldiers who accompanied the students became friendly with many of the participants, Riesfeld explained. The soldiers, serving their mandatory military service for Israel, were not members of the infantry but had family and friends who more directly involved in the fighting, she said.
“It’s such a small country,” Elana Kagan ’10 explained. “Everybody is affected and involved.”
In the middle of the trip the soldiers returned to their bases for two days, Sender said. And when they met up again with the Birthright group, one soldier reported that his base had been bombed, requiring him to find safety in a shelter.
“That was really scary to know that someone we knew and formed a relationship with was involved in that,” Sender said.
As Reisfeld put it, traveling and interacting with the soldiers helped “give a face” to the Israeli army.
But participants interviewed said, in general, they sensed little fear in the Israelis they encountered.
“They felt completely safe,” Ilana Yurkiewicz ’10 noted of Israelis she met in Jerusalem. “They don’t feel the war in Gaza when they’re elsewhere.”
Kagan recalled that at breakfast one morning some Yalies mentioned that their parents were worried about the students’ safety. Their soldier friends, she said, were genuinely surprised.
“To them ‘scary’ is when there’s fighting in your own town,” she said. In a country the size of New Jersey, she explained, “the distance seems a lot bigger to them than it does to us.”
COMING HOME TO AMERICA
Trip leaders provided regular updates about the fighting and the radius of Hamas’ rockets, trip participant Lauren Campbell ’11 said. As the violence escalated, newspapers were circulated on the group’s bus to keep students informed.
But being in Israel actually made it difficult to grasp the larger scope of the situation, Reisfeld noted.
“What was strange about it was that, in many ways, my friends back home and my parents knew much more about it than I did,” she said.
Kagan, among others, said that when she returned to the U.S. the “pro-Palestinian” depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American and international media did not seem to reflect the impressions she had gotten from being in Israel.
“The way we were hearing about the fighting in Israel is just so different than how it’s portrayed here,” Kagan said Saturday.
What she described as Israel’s efforts to limit civilian casualties and Hamas’ role in provoking the retaliation have been “totally lost” in the American news, she said.
“It’s Hamas who is causing the ‘humanitarian crisis’ by shooting from civilian locations, and yet Israel gets the blame,” Kagan wrote in an e-mail Monday. “Nobody denies that we have a terrible situation on the ground in Gaza, but I don’t think enough people around the world are looking fairly at how we got there.”
Sender, who said she is “pro-Israel,” added that being in Israel did not change her opinions, but getting to know Israelis gave her a greater stake in the country’s affairs. She said she still believes Israel’s existence is necessary for Jews and added, “I think that I have a much firmer, realer basis for feeling that way now.”