“It is uncomfortable for me that there are two countries [Israel and Saudi Arabia] near each other, but they have no relations, no business, almost no interactions,” a Saudi student from Imperial College London, recently told The Jerusalem Post.
He made the remarks while on a five-day start-up and technology visit to Israel organized by the Imperial College Israeli Society.
A total of 55 students from 25 nations, including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Jamaica and China, as well as several European countries, took part in the organized trip, now in its second year.
As part of the trip, students visited Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Jerusalem, touring leading hi-tech companies, such as MobilEye, Netafim and Checkpoint, as well as visiting university campuses and meeting with start-ups and investors.
Additionally, the participants were given the opportunity to visit tourist attractions such as the Dead Sea and the Old City of Jerusalem, and to tour Tel Aviv by bike.
“When I told my friends that I was going to Israel, they were not happy about it, because it is a sensitive issue,” the student, who requested not to be named, said. “I also didn’t tell my family except for my brother... he tried to get me not to go and said I would get arrested.”
“It was really silly, but I was worried,” he said.
While the trip focused on the hi-tech scene in Israel, the student said he was able to see and experience for himself many aspects of the country, some of which challenged his preconceptions.
“The average person in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is very nice and this is different because we are used to seeing Israelis as ruthless,” he said.
The anonymous student also said he was very surprised to see Arabs living, studying and working in Israel, and even women wearing Hijabs.
“I thought all Arabs had been kicked out of Israel, so I was very surprised to see some,” he said.
He added that he was also surprised to see a mosque right along the beachfront in Tel Aviv. “I was shocked,” he said.
THROUGHOUT HIS TRIP, he explained that he tried to reach out and speak to Arab-Israelis and Palestinians he encountered around the country.
Some, he said, were welcoming of him and open to conversation. Many, however, were incredulous – a few were outright angry with him for visiting Israel as a Saudi national.
During his visit to al-Aksa Mosque, “a dream for every Muslim,” the student said he was confronted by an angry man. “He looked at me as though I am an Arab traitor,” he said.
“There are two different points of view – some started attacking me, others welcomed me – the difference between the two is very interesting,” he added.
Another memorable experience from his trip was visiting Yad VaShem in Jerusalem.
“I have visited the Holocaust museum in Europe, but the museum in Israel was much better,” he said. “I felt it was my responsibility to ask questions. At the end of the tour I asked about comparing the Holocaust and the treatment of the Palestinians.
“The Holocaust was horrible, it was a historical mistake that we kept silent, but at the same time there is something going on in Israel that they should talk about as well,” he said.
Overall, the Saudi student said he was “very impressed” with the “Startup Nation,” adding that all the entrepreneurs and start-ups spoke “very freely” with the students.
DESPITE HIS MOSTLY positive experiences, there were also negative ones.
“I wasn’t happy with the living conditions of the Bedouin in the South,” he explained, referring to Bedouin villages on the outskirts of Beersheba. “In Saudi Arabia we used to have Bedouins but eventually most Bedouins moved to the city and now they are treated equally.”
Another issue that disturbed him was a continual reference to demographics during lectures and in speaking with Israelis about the country.
“People always talked about the number of the Jewish people and the Arabs – always showing that Arabs are a minority,” he said. “I don’t know what the main driving force is for this, but they are always mentioning the numbers.”
The student also said he did not like the religious extremism of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“I am not religious and I don’t like religious people talking about religion,” he said. “I didn’t like how the ultra-Orthodox segregate themselves. They are very religious – you may compare them to the religious [people] in Saudi Arabia. You can’t just worship G-d and expect to get money from the sky – you have to work.”
After returning to London and reflecting on his trip, when asked if he would recommend that his friends visit Israel, he said he would.
“I would recommend it, if it is an educational trip from Imperial [College], if it is a group visit with more than 20 nationalities,” he said. “But I think if they go alone they might eventually get access to Israel, but they would spend a lot of time at the airport.”
The student added that this trip presented the possibility for future peace in the Middle East. “If there will be peace between Arabs and Israelis it will be achieved in the coming decade; if not by then, this division will be the norm for many coming generations.”
“There are lots of common interests when it comes to the region,” he added, saying that he would love the opportunity to see collaborations in the sciences between Israeli and Arab scientists.
“If you look at Europe, everyone is interconnected and you have people from all countries, different religions, different colors – Jews and Arabs are the same, the only thing that divides us is the religion,” he said.
SIMON WEILL, President of the Imperial College Israeli Society, told the Post
that the visit by the Saudi student was a unique experience, the first of what he hoped to be many more.
“Most of the students are neutral regarding Israel... most were curious because they only read about Israel in the media but also heard about the tech side,” he said. “They want to learn about start-ups and see for themselves why Israel is so successful as a start-up nation.”
He added: “At the end of the day everybody goes home and says: ‘one hundred percent I want to come back to visit.’ Some students have even written articles about the trip in the university newspaper.”
While the first year of the trip attracted 40 students, this year’s trip has 55 participants chosen from some 150 applicants interested in visiting the country. The success, Weill explained, has drawn an interest by other campuses in the UK.
“We might be starting a new trend in the UK, with more and more universities looking to hold trips like this – also because of the great impact it has on the image of Israel on UK campuses which usually is very negative,” he said.
He added that the fact that the trip is heavily subsidized thanks to large donations – costing students only 299 pounds – was also very appealing.
Businessman and philanthropist David Dangoor, one of the main sponsors of the tour, told the Post
that, “it is a great thing for Israel, but it is also a great thing for all these students all over the world who are able to see for themselves that the media reports they get are hugely inaccurate.”
Dangoor said the visiting students will go on to “be ambassadors for Israel all over the world in a very positive way.”
“This is why I feel this is something to pursue, because as you would expect, feelings [regarding Israel] are not uniform... some people have a mind of their own and they need to be given the help to see [Israel] for themselves,” he added.
Dangoor said he believes the program should be expanded throughout universities in the UK.
“There are more opportunities to harness enthusiasm for Israel around the world; there is much opportunity that has yet to be tapped,” he said.
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