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Courtesy Zak Aldridge /

The West Bank barrier at a checkpoint in March 2016.

In a recent op-ed, Zak Aldridge suggests that there is no such thing as a “free lunch” when one is offered a low-cost trip to Israel. He seemingly equates his biases, experiences, and takeaways to the profound truths that we, as students considering joining such trips, should be sure to remember. But in so doing, Aldridge misses the point of these trips, lets his bias blind him from presenting both perspectives of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and confuses his feelings about Israel with the objectives of Hillel.

I went on the Hillel Alternative Spring Break program in spring 2017. My experience was far different from that of Aldridge. Aldridge says these trips “seem like a good deal.” They are. Through such trips, students are afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet important leaders, see how Israelis and Palestinians live, sightsee, and go to areas they otherwise may not have the chance to visit (like Ramallah and an Israeli settlement). Aldridge assumes that because some of these programs are sponsored by the Israeli government or Zionist organizations, there must be some underlying devious motive to create sympathy for Israel.

However, the whole intention of the trip is for students to be exposed to both sides, both people, and the day-to-day of what it is like to live in a conflict-ridden area. On campus we so often begin passionate discussions, and even arguments, about an issue so few of us truly know enough about or have ever seen firsthand. The intention of Hillel’s alternative break trip is to change that. How many of us can seriously discuss the attempt at peace from the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority’s "pay-to-slay" measure for terrorists, or the negatives of Israeli settlement expansion? My knowledge on these subjects was expanded deeply because of the trip.

It is true that the organizations funding these programs likely do want people to understand Israel. When a country feels extremely threatened by surrounding countries, it makes sense for the state to want people to understand at least some of the actions it takes.

For those outside of this issue, it is important to try to understand the history behind the issue, the current debates, and what future solutions are possible. Aldridge says, “Having learned about Israel and Palestine at Columbia, the façade was not hard to see through.” The real façade is the one that exists on our own campus—where it feels as though we must take a definitive stance on the issue and decide who is the real victim. What you learn in class or in a club meeting on the Middle East is not the same thing you learn from going to a country to meet with an Israeli diplomat or a Palestinian businessman.

Aldridge states that “simply being there [in Palestine], you stand on land that was and continues to be cleansed of its indigenous population.” While I don’t agree with this point, does visiting some place mean we endorse every action it takes as a state? I suppose that people shouldn’t visit the United States, then, or Columbia University—as even our school is built on the Lenape people’s land. The best way to have a position is to experience it firsthand—you shouldn’t need to feel complicit in a “Zionist project” or be embarrassed to say you’ve been to Israel and Palestine. I’m proud to have gone and heard perspectives I would otherwise not have heard.

While Aldridge negatively remembers sipping lattes near Gaza, I got something different out of those moments in which I was enjoying myself, but was also hyperaware of the suffering around me. Being near Gaza is supposed to highlight how complicated the conflict is; how Palestinians suffer, but also how Israelis gave back the land in a peace effort before Hamas took over; how bad actors can prohibit peace. It’s complicated and there are multiple groups at fault. What I learned from the trip is that I must consider efforts from both governments and see what improvements can be made on both sides. When it came to two peoples, a complicated land issue, and a conflict that is both religious and political, as an independent observer I knew I couldn’t ignore one side and champion the other without fully establishing a well-rounded perspective first. Because I approached the conflict and my trip to Israel with an open mind and eagerness to understand, I now know why the issue is so complex, and have my own ideas about future solutions.

I learned more than I ever have on a trip because Hillel took me to learn about the conflict firsthand. I was able to form my own opinions, without having one forced upon me, which happens all too often at Columbia. I got to see the nuance and complexity of the conflict and how it affects both Israeli and Palestinian families. Hillel’s trip is invaluable and you should go with an open mind, questions, and the ability to challenge your own beliefs, too. Even if you have a preconceived opinion about something, if you go on a trip like this, you must be open and be willing to listen and learn. Assuming there is a simple truth for something as complicated as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes the depth out of history and the populations affected. If you have the chance to be an independent observer via a trip like this that is open to Jewish and non-Jewish students, don’t be wary—go and grow. Feel free to critique an opinion, but don’t attack the attempt at conversation.

The author is a junior in Columbia College majoring in political science and concentrating in Russian language and culture.

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Letter to the editor Hillel Israel trip abroad
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