Returning to campus

The second week of the ZOA Student Leadership Mission provided an opportunity to strengthen connections between students and Israel and to foster a deeper understanding of issues presented during the first week. It was a real privilege to see the students become much more comfortable with the issues and one another as they engaged in in-depth discussions focused on politics and the reality of Israeli life. We continued to explore core issues related to the conflict by providing the students with an opportunity to explore more of the geography of Israel, meet with residents from diverse areas, and see first-hand security dilemmas faced on a daily basis. Also, many examples were given to show the deep Jewish connection to the land.  
We began the week with a trip through Samaria (the Northern West Bank). The students visited the cities of Psagot, Elon Moreh and Ariel, where they visited the new cultural arts center. From there, we made our way to Maskiot in the Jordan River Valley, which has been being built by refugees from Gush Katif. The students were impressed by the commitment of the refugees to Zionism when they heard from residents about their pledge to keep building homes at all times and to make it grow. Janessa Goldberg, President of Hillel at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN, commented that, "it was a very inspiring to see a community being built from the ground up." As a group, the students hoped that on their next visit, the community would expand and that more families would move in.
The trip continued from there to head farther north to the Golan Heights. In the Golan, we met with David Spellman, Golan Director of Absorption, and Rotem Kabalo, Golan Director of Young Leadership and Students. Mr. Spellman''s presentation included information about the history of the Golan and reasons for why it should always stay as a part of Israel. The students then explored the ancient Jewish village and synagogue in Katzrin, which is over 1500 years old. Many students commented on the impact of this visit in relation to their connection to Israel because of the way it felt to walk through their own history.
The trip continued with a visit to the Syria border. Students were able to view the border from high-points that illustrated how at risk citizens of Israel were prior to the 1967 war. Seeing these sights helped the students understand the Israeli perspective in relation to the Golan and put it in context. Student Dov Berkman, Political Advocacy chair at Binghampton University, NY, reported that it will be much easier to respond to questions on campus now because of his experience in visiting the border regions. He can now say that, he has "seen and had the experience and credentials of seeing it."
Students also visited Kibbutz Malkhiya where there is a strong Hizbullah presence. We were shown a large grad rocket from the 2006 Lebanon War and walked next to the border-fence between Israel and southern Lebanon. Rebecca Ehrenkranz from Brandeis University, Boston, MA, commented that seeing up close and personal how close Israel''s enemies are to their borders "was the most valuable thing learned." She continued to explain how this could be used for advocacy, saying, "people don''t understand how small Israel is" and that "seeing it means more than seeing a random demarcation on a map." After walking along the border fence, the students also planted a kiwi tree nearby and, as a group, delivered gifts to eight soldiers who are stationed near the kibbutz. This, of course, was an enriching experience for both the students and soldiers who enjoyed sharing conversations about their lives.
The group spent their final Shabbat together in Efrat in the Judean Hills. The residents of Efrat extended a warm welcome to the students and invited them into their homes for a very meaningful experience. This final experience provided the students with the opportunity to have discussions with the local residents and to see how life is in Gush Etzion. Following Shabbat, students heard from IDF Colonel Bentzi Gruber, who talked about the misconceptions about what happened during Operation Cast Lead and showed videos illustrating what really happened. Students were moved by his presentation and many talked with him about speaking on their campuses during the next semester. We also met with MK Danny Dannon, Speaker of the Knesset and spent some time in Tel Aviv.
Most of the remainder of the trip was spent exploring communities that are seen as controversial by much of the world community. We made our way to Hebron, where we met with community leader David Wilder who conducted an extensive tour that expanded students understanding of their Jewish heritage. The tour included visits to the ancient walls of Hebron dating back thousands of years; the Hadassah House Museum, showing the history of Hebron and memorializing the victims of the 1929 Massacre; and the Cave of the Patriarchs, built by King Herod and burial site for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The tour was very moving for most of the students who were overwhelmed by their connections to a 3000+ year history. Josh Twito, CUNY Staten Island College, NY, said, "although many feel most connected at the Kotel, my connection to this land was strongest at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron because we were privileged to stand beside the graves of our forefathers to whom this land was promised."
Heading back from Hebron, we stopped in Kfar Etzion to hear the history of Gush Etzion through an audio-visual presentation and to meet with the mayor, Shaul Goldstein. Goldstein addressed the students with a presentation on, "Are Settlements Really an Obstacle to Peace?" He thoroughly debunked the theory that has become predominant in political circles on campuses and throughout the world. The presentation helped to solidify students impressions obtained by visiting communities in Judea and Samaria. Most of the students believed that the settlements were definitely not a problem based on their discussions with residents. This was expressed by Avi Davidov, Queens College, NY, who said, "On campus, settlements are seen as controversial and an impediment to peace, but they''re not. The truth is that they really promote peace and coexistence between Jews and their Arab neighbors." Contrary to his, we saw just the opposite though when passing by Area A and B territories in Judea and Samaria. Outside of each of these Arab villages or cities that are under control of the Palestinian Authority, there is a large red sign reading that entry to Israeli Jews is illegal. This was a troubling sight to many of the trip participants.
Our final day was spent touring northern and eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods that have caused controversy in the world community. Students on the tour witnessed the close proximity of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods and saw the dangers that would come about if the city were to be split apart. Later, we met with Zavi Apfelbaum from the Foreign Ministry of Israel who spoke about branding Israel on campus. The tour concluded with good food and friends at the Herzl Restaurant in Jerusalem before departing for flights in Tel Aviv. Students engaged in discussions about their experiences and readiness to return and advocate for Israel. Daniel Cohen, University of Illinois noted that, "ZOA provides a core response to many issues that pro Israel activists face on campus and a foundation for their own development as Zionist leaders."
We hope all of the students will return to their home campuses in the US energized by their experiences in Israel and equipped with advocacy skills to deal with the day to day issues and questions that arise. Also, we hope the students gained an understanding that the ZOA is there to support them in advocacy. Personally, I could not feel more pleased with the commitment of this group of students and I know Jeff Daube, the Director of the ZOA''s Israel office felt the same. He stated that although he has participated in four ZOA collegiate trips in the past, "this is the best group by far." Also, Danny Ehrlich, the Educational Director of Keshet - The Center for Educational Tourism followed up on this by saying that he was, "impressed by the commitment, energy, and intensity of some of the members of the group." The ZOA is looking forward to working with all trip participants on their campuses this semester in Israel activism. We also are excited for next year''s mission to Israel with a new group of leaders who will be inspired to learn.