JNF-USA's Caravan for Democracy mission: Students, professors see Israel

"This is a narrative that you never hear about.”

JNF-USA Caravan for Democracy participants visit the Kotel. (photo credit: JNF USA)
JNF-USA Caravan for Democracy participants visit the Kotel.
(photo credit: JNF USA)
In 2019, American college campuses have become increasingly polarized and intolerant places that leave little room for nuance, especially with regard to Israel and the Middle East. For students like Mark McGuire and Neidelyn del Carmen Pina, participants in Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission, a 10-day, fully subsidized educational program to Israel for non-Jewish student leaders, the trip provided them with the opportunity to learn about Israel through meetings with political, cultural, and community leaders from diverse backgrounds and faiths.
McGuire, a student in Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, said that the program gave him the opportunity to listen and learn from people representing different points of view. “We heard from people on the political right and the political left, from Arab-Israeli citizens, and from Palestinians. We heard a number of different perspectives,” said McGuire. He was particularly appreciative of the fact that participants were free to ask any questions of the speakers.
“They were not afraid that we would ask a critical question about Israeli settlements or ask about Palestinian suicide bombers,” he said. “They did not restrict our freedom of speech.” What resulted from the open exchanges, McGuire felt, was a greater sense of understanding. “I learned a lot from my questions, and from other people’s questions.”
Pina found a far greater level of diversity in Israel than she had anticipated. “One of my favorite parts of the trip was meeting members of Israel’s Ethiopian community. I never expected to meet black Israelis,” she said. “The trip made me realize that Israel is a very diverse country. The fact that the Ethiopians there feel the same way that black Americans feel in America was interesting and unexpected.” Pina also found the dinners and lunches that participants shared in people’s homes to be intimate moments that provided a unique and different perspective about life in Israel.
McGuire found the group’s meetings with Arab-Israelis to be particularly illuminating. “It was interesting to hear their perspective. They said that they were proud to live in Israel, even though they sometimes felt discriminated against. They never felt that it inhibited them in terms of their Israeli identity. They said, ‘It’s my country, too.’ This is a narrative that you never hear about.”
Since returning home, McGuire has spoken to fellow students about his experiences in Israel. He notes that the student body at Seton Hall has not expressed great opposition to Israel, and he was able to speak of his experiences openly. “I am in favor of nuance,” he said. “Even if people don’t agree, we can raise the level of dialog and build some common ground. I have been talking about what I experienced there, offering my take on the country and my different experiences, and trying to broaden it in a way that even if we are engaging critically, we can come to a common understanding that we didn’t have before.”
Pina’s experiences after she returned from her trip were less positive. She and a fellow student who had also participated in the trip, planned an event to speak about their experiences with other students, and began to publicize it through various group chats. Shortly thereafter, she said, “We got a lot of backlash from the Students for Justice in Palestine group.” Ultimately, they were forced to conduct a joint event with SJP, but were not permitted to use the event to recruit students for future Caravan for Democracy trips. “It was very biased and was not the ideal event that we wanted to have,” she said.
Despite the opposition that she encountered on campus, Pina enthusiastically recommends the trip to college students who are interested in learning more about the Middle East, Israel, and different religions.
Educating students is not enough though. To provide greater understanding on college campuses, Jewish National Fund-USA hosts the Faculty Fellowship Program, a fully paid intensive program to Israel for full-time academics. Now in its 12th year, the program pairs its American participants with Israeli counterparts in their field of study, with the expectation that participants bring methods that they have learned to their respective campuses at the close of the program. In addition, the program demonstrates how Israel makes the world a better place. Participants tour and visit historical sites in Israel and learn about the country’s technological and scientific achievements. As with the Caravan for Democracy program, participants engage in open and frank discussions on Israeli life with a wide range of speakers from all walks of Israeli society.
Ashley Randall, an associate professor in counseling and counseling psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, participated in the program in 2017. “I went with open eyes and a blank slate in terms of what I would experience,” she said. Randall returned from her trip, not only raving about Israel, but about the structured, full program that she experienced.
“There was never a dull moment. We would wake up in the morning in Tel Aviv, would be in the Golan Heights by midday, and by evening we would return to Jerusalem. We were exposed to individuals from diverse backgrounds and saw the integration of a diverse nation come together.” Randall was particularly affected by her visit to the SodaStream plant near Beersheba, where hundreds of Jews, Palestinians, and Bedouins work together in harmony and friendship. She was equally impressed by the Galilee Medical Center, where Israeli doctors work with Syrian refugees, helping in their physical rehabilitation. Prof. Randall made valuable connections with academics in her field and is now working on joint projects with colleagues at the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University.
After returning to the United States, many people asked her about her experiences. “When I told students and faculty about being near the Gaza border, I was asked if it was dangerous. There never was a context in which I felt unsafe,” she said. Prof. Randall, who will soon be returning to Israel to visit colleagues, was particularly happy to meet people from different groups and backgrounds, including Ibtissam Machmeed, a women’s rights and interfaith activist; Ethiopians; Muslims; Druze; and various rabbis, who “taught them about the cultural groundings of Judaism.”
Randall recalls that one of the last places they visited was the Peres Peace and Innovation Center in Tel Aviv. There, she saw a sign she said symbolized her visit to Israel. The sign read, “Dream Big.” “That was a sticking point for me, in recognizing that such a young nation in terms of historical context has developed.”
Since 2008, more than 300 academics have participated in JNF-USA’s Faculty Fellowship Program in Israel. By January 2020, nearly 450 students will have traveled to Israel on JNF-USA’s Caravan for Democracy Program.
René Reinhard, JNF-USA’s executive director of the Faculty Fellowship Program in Israel is proud of the program’s long-running impact. “Over 12 days, Fellows take part in robust discussions that continue throughout the program, both formally and informally.” Reinhard said they have a simple motto: “If you want to know Israel, meet Israelis!”
The motto is evident in the program’s intensive itinerary, where participants meet with Israelis from all walks of life. “From Knesset members to taxi drivers, secular, orthodox, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Bukharan, Libyan, and Ethiopian Jews, non-Jewish Israelis including Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, Circassian, and members of the Baha’i community. Our Fellows are immersed in Israel’s kaleidoscope of cultures while learning about the Start-Up Nation, Israel’s work in sustainability, agriculture, and innovative water management,” he said.
Reinhard is also pleased with the program’s ongoing impact. “When our participants return, they share their Positively Israel experience with their students, faculty, colleagues, family, and communities. They can honestly and confidently talk about the Israel they experienced, which in turn empowers them to change the conversation on campus.”
JNF-USA’s Caravan for Democracy and Faculty Fellowship Program introduce Israel to students and faculty members, and in doing so promote greater understanding and dialog about Israel on college campuses. In today’s BDS-influenced climate, it’s a tall order. But as the sign said, “Dream Big.”
Both programs are competitive and have more applicants than available places. JNF-USA’s Faculty Fellowship Program is open to all US-based full-time academics and both a Winter and Summer program are offered. For more information, prospective Caravan for Democracy Program applicants can contact Eliana Dalfen at [email protected] while prospective Faculty Fellowship applicants can contact René Reinhard at [email protected]
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.