West Bank Tour and Concluding Thoughts on Israel

On our free day, most of the Chazen Israel group decided to visit the West Bank in order to gain a better understanding of Palestinian points of view on the conflict.  We booked a tour, left Tel Aviv, and drove into Zone A of the Palestinian Authority, an area that comprises about 18% of the West Bank, is administered by Palestine, and is forbidden by law to Israeli citizens.

Our first stop was the town of Beit Sahour, where we visited Byzantine ruins and a large cave typical of where a number of Palestinians stayed for safety during the wars.  Then, we walked through a refugee camp and the dividing wall in Bethlehem.  The graffiti and murals were bold and provocative, while the soldiers were friendly and appeared relaxed.  (As our tour guide Tamer quipped, conflicts tend to break out on Fridays, but not usually on Saturdays when we were there; needless to say, we were extremely grateful for no incidents other than some minor delays crossing back through the Israeli border in the evening.)  Tamer’s take on the situation was that there is significant mistrust between the people of Palestine and the very corrupt leadership and the wall is a big obstacle to peace as it is very difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to meet.  He also believes that “suicide bombing was a mistake” and expressed relief that it has decreased significantly today.

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We later visited some ancient sites throughout the West Bank, stopping at the basilica in Bethlehem located approximately on the site where Jesus was born, the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized (the border to Jordan, which is naturally demarcated by the narrow river, was a tantalizing 30 or so feet away at current water levels, but we would have been seized by security had we tried to cross), and the oldest city in the world, Jericho, all of which feature prominently in the Bible.  Our last stop was Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority where we drove through the city center and visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb.  I found myself at times enchanted by the striking landscape – a beautiful reminder that this region is much more than the war zone that we typically hear about in the news.

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The Jordan River

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Scenic views close to a Bedouin settlement

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 Archaelogical ruins overlooking the area where Jesus was tempted by the Devil according to Biblical accounts.  He wasn’t the first to inhabit the region though – the city of Jericho is 10,000 years old!

Upon returning home, I can safely say that Chazen Israel was really a trip of a lifetime, and based on the conversations I’ve had with fellow trip members on campus, we’re all still thinking about and processing the experience.  To try to quickly encapsulate some of what we learned, from an economic perspective, there are many positive signs for Israel: unemployment is stable, wages are increasing, household leverage is low, and a recent natural gas discovery is estimated to create $100-$130 billion in value over time.  The country still faces some major hurdles, however.  For instance, the relative poverty among Arabs and Ultraorthodox Jews is very high, and despite the fact that Israel has some very good universities (and the #1 ranking in number of university degrees per capita), the educational system as a whole is below the OECD average.  From a business perspective, Israeli entrepreneurship seems to be on fire, with 4,850 active startups, a competitive edge in a number of technology fields, and a culture that really encourages risk taking and asking difficult questions.  For an insightful view of Israel’s startup culture, I highly recommend Start-Up Nation, which we all read before the trip.

As a few classmates weighed in:

“Prior to visiting Israel, I was firmly critical of the country and held strong doubts on Israel’s right to exist.  My trip to Israel has taught me that Israel is a living, breathing reality that is not going away. However, in order for Israel to uphold its own vision of a Jewish homeland, a country for the Palestinian people must also be viable and secure.” – Kris McGee ‘14

“I’ve always observed from afar the fervent patriotism of Israelis, and this week has helped me understand exactly why—you have so much to be proud of. Thank you for sharing with us a part of your culture, your history and your lives. For the second years, this will be our last Chazen experience. We will soon enter the proverbial real world with Chazen Israel as one of our last Columbia memories, and we are grateful to you two for making it a profoundly memorable one.” – Chuan Go ‘13

“The main reason I wanted to help organize this trip was to show the numerous different faces Israel has, the challenges that we faced here and the obstacles we are going to face in the future.  Another reason (which is as important as the first in my eyes) is to be reminded how fortunate I am to grow up here and be surrounded by sights that are so important to a variety of religions all around the world.” – Guy Soreq ‘14

It’s an honor to have had the opportunity to participate in this trip experience and contribute these blogs.  Thank you for reading!

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

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Swimming in the Dead Sea!  Photo Credit: Megan Carley

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