Yehuda Lukacs
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Not black and white: Revisiting study abroad in Israel and Palestine

As discourse on Gaza gets toxic, students of a past academic program recall the multiple perspectives that challenged their narratives
Illustrative: Israeli Jews and Palestinians talk to each other, during a weekly meeting organized by Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from the West Bank, on July 22, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli Jews and Palestinians talk to each other, during a weekly meeting organized by Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from the West Bank, on July 22, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“What are you doing here,” inquired the students from Gaza University. “We came to listen to you,” replied the group from George Mason University. I brought them to Gaza as part of a study tour of Jordan, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories in January 2000. We met at the university, which was recently destroyed by the Israeli military during the war, along with eleven other colleges and universities in Gaza.

Witnessing the pro-Palestinian student protestors at Columbia and other schools compelled me to chronicle the experience of my former students who were eyewitnesses in years past to the complex, brutal, and unfiltered reality of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I asked them to share their most memorable moments while studying abroad. Several responded. I was struck by the willingness of so many to contribute. After all, we lost contact for over a decade. These are the students’ stories.

Before retiring from George Mason University, I was a tenured faculty and senior administrator overseeing global education programs in nearly 75 countries. Throughout my academic career, I also led over 25 student groups in 35 countries in West and East Europe, the Balkans, the Baltics, and the Middle East.

Each study tour had a distinct theme, including European politics, post-Communist transformation, conflict resolution, and Arab-Israeli relations.

For 11 consecutive years, I directed 9-week summer programs in Israel and Palestine and a few shorter winter study tours that included Jordan. About 300 university students from several institutions enrolled, most of whom were not Middle Eastern or Israeli studies majors.

Thousands of American students have studied in Israel. Ours was a unique academic program that exposed students to Israeli and Palestinian narratives while providing a total immersion experience by having students work in local internships and integrate into the community where they lived.

Once landing in Tel Aviv, I left my professor’s hat in Fairfax, Virginia. Through personal contacts and generous assistance from Israeli and Palestinian local coordinators, I facilitated direct and personal experiences for students so they could gather raw information and process it themselves.

Each year we started with an introductory 10-day seminar followed by 6–8-week internships The seminar included briefings by Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials, United Nations peacekeepers, journalists, peace activists, and academics. We visited Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, archeological and religious sites such as the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall, Masada, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.

We also visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah and the memorial site where an Israeli extremist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv.

Over the years, our distinguished speakers offered a multitude of perspectives. They included Ahmed Qurei, former Palestinian negotiator and prime minister; Naftali Bennett, former Israeli prime minister; Abdel Salam al-Majali, former Jordanian prime minister; as well as Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel, and William Burns, former ambassador to Jordan, now CIA director, among many others.

“That trip left a bigger impression on me than perhaps any other experience in my life,” wrote Kerry, an American University graduate student.

Contradictory information

Tianna, an American University graduate student who interned with the Palestinian NGO Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem described the seminar as “crafted situations to expose us to information, then contradictory information, make us uncomfortable, and come back together and try to grapple with it.”

Upon completing the seminar, students were placed in individual internships with organizations in Israel and the West Bank and lived either in apartments or with families in various cities.

Deborah, who joined the group for the program’s seminar portion, recollected: “What I took away is the diversity of the speakers and the ‘on-the-ground’ experiences set up for the students, I remember being struck by the wide range of Palestinian and Israeli internships offered. I also thought it was remarkable that even on ‘one side’ (Israel, for example) students could intern with organizations with different stances on peace and justice. The fact that they could meet and continue their conversations with one another while interning meant that they could share what they were learning about the perspectives they were encountering.”

For students such as Shoshana, a George Mason undergraduate, the internship experience proved to be a pivotal milestone in her career: “My internship with Windows-Channels for Communication in Tel Aviv changed my whole life. Witnessing the youth’s bravery and willingness to accept the stories of their cohort deeply shifted my perspective and prompted me to dig deeper and question my own narratives. When I returned to Tel Aviv in 2012 for my master’s, I again volunteered at Windows and found a job with Kids4Peace. I would not be the person I am today without these people-to-people peacebuilding experiences. “

Melanie who audited the Israel/Jordan/Palestinian Territories study tour, observed: “Until you visit the region, you don’t have a true sense of how closely Israel is surrounded by its formerly and currently hostile neighbors. Driving from Amman to Jerusalem is similar in distance to a trip from Washington, DC, to Baltimore. So, I gained a much greater appreciation of the country’s vulnerability. Hamas’ invasion on October 7th is a case in point.”

Wael Zboun, a retired academic administrator at the Palestine Ahliya University who supervised a few of our students’ internships in Bethlehem, reflected: “They came to understand that Palestine is not merely a geopolitical issue but home to a resilient population striving for dignity and freedom.”

For students living in the West Bank, that understanding included exposure to the brutality and arbitrariness of the military occupation; they got a first-hand sense of what Palestinians experience daily.

Will, a George Mason undergraduate who interned at Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom/Oasis of Peace, the only Arab-Jewish community in Israel, recalled upon returning from a visit to the West Bank as “being interrogated by several IDF soldiers inquiring why was I visiting this area – with one soldier holding their automatic rifle in my direction. I was finally allowed to go through the checkpoint only after pointing to the crucifix I wore.”

Rebekah, a University of Oklahoma undergraduate, who interned at the Palestinian NGO Tawasul (Linkage) and lived in Ramallah wrote: “I’ll never forget visiting Hebron and witnessing the water tanks on the roofs of Palestinian apartments being riddled with bullet holes from neighboring Israelis, in hopes that they would give up their homes since they are no longer able to store fresh water.”

Kerry, who worked with the NGO Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, and lived in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, shared a traumatic incident: “I saw Israeli soldiers trash a family’s apartment where one of our students was housed and beat their teenage boy and then take him away with no word where he was taken and no due process.”

For Melanie, “My most profound experience was the day we spent in Gaza. Our guide was an aide of Yasser Arafat’s, so we felt safe. However, it was so sad to see the extreme poverty, poor housing conditions, and overcrowding in the refugee camps. But we also drove by magnificent mansions along the coastline – so clearly some of the foreign aid the Palestinian Authority was receiving was not reaching the people.”

She continued, “While visiting a refugee camp, we entered a community center run by Hamas. The walls were lined with portraits of young men who were martyrs – likely suicide bombers. We were asked to walk around and stop before each portrait to pay our respects. We also met a Palestinian Authority minister who asked to my astonishment, “Why do the Jews need Israel as their homeland if the Holocaust never actually happened?”

Nicoletta, an American University undergraduate, divided her internship between the Palestine-Israel Journal and the NGO Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem. She visited the Palestinian Al-Bustan area of Silwan located in East Jerusalem where the Israeli government has been assisting a right-wing settler organization – Ateret Cohanim (Crowns of the Priests) – to evict its residents and replace them with Jewish settlers:

“It marked me tremendously when witnessing a Palestinian family being pushed out of their home while waiting for their house to be bulldozed. One of the family members still inside, was an elderly man who was unable to stand up from his bed due to his health situation, thus refusing to leave the house. One of the Rabbis and I interviewed the dying man. I later found out that the house had ended up being bulldozed – the process of destroying the house began as tears streamed down my face. I will never forget the pain I felt while seeing how the bulldozer advanced towards the house.”

During the weekends, students would visit each other in various locations. Traveling from Ramallah to Tel Aviv, Rebekah noted that “it made me more aware of how easily Israelis can go about their lives with no thought of the occupation; it was easy to be oblivious in beautiful Tel Aviv.”

On the other hand, Zane, a George Mason undergraduate who worked at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, remarked: “As a group, we learned so much, even when we weren’t engaged in study programs or work functions. Daily interactions on the streets of Israeli and West Bank cities and in the refugee camps taught us how peaceful people can be, and how the semblance of tranquility at the time can instantly devolve into a disaster.”

Karolin, a George Mason graduate student, worked for the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition in Jaffa which focused on social justice for Jews originating in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Although, as a Persian Jew, I would be considered as an ‘ethnic minority’ in Israel, growing up in Los Angeles, I was indoctrinated into believing that we are all equal as Jews. However, I learned about the plight of Jewish ethnic minorities in Israel such as the Ethiopian community. The discrimination and racism they face socially, systematically, and politically, lifted yet another veil of delusion from my eyes,”

It was about people

Victoria, a George Mason undergraduate, who interned for Yedid (Acquaintance) and taught English to Arab children in Nazareth, wrote: “Back then, I thought you couldn’t be Jewish and pro-Palestinian – the line was so hard and fast – I understand now how important Dr. Lukacs’ advice was to analyze the conflict in a way that wasn’t black or white. That ambiguity was so intimidating. I walked away realizing it wasn’t about being Jewish or Palestinian. It was about people.”

Burhan Sheikh Suliman, whose family provided exceptional home hospitality to Victoria and other students in Nazareth, noted “When they arrived, we felt the students were ignorant of the Arab society in Israel. They were hesitant to face us. They did not know that Arabs and Jews live together in Israel and there are no boundaries between our communities, nor were they aware of the existence of integrated cities where they co-exist peacefully. They departed Israel, however, with a keen understanding and appreciation of our reality.”

Our program was not without controversy, of course. In April 2008, the right-wing, Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, published a report on our summer program. It criticized internship placements in organizations such as Amnesty International in Tel Aviv and the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth. The report argued that these organizations are highly politicized and biased and support anti-Israeli activities such as BDS – Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Responding to the allegations, I said:

“The program’s objective is to let the students decide what is happening in the area. It has no ideological bent, except that we would like our students to see the situation with their own eyes. Professor Steinberg [NGO Monitor’s Executive Director] would have our students wear blinders and pursue only one point of view.” I characterized the campaign as “trying to smear programs like ours.”

For most students, personally and professionally, it was a transformative experience, which still echoes vividly in their minds, especially as they observed the acts of barbarity committed on October 7th and the ensuing war’s unimaginable human toll and destruction.

Commenting on how the public discourse in the US has turned toxic, Mark, a graduate student at George Mason and participant in the Northern Ireland/Cyprus/Israel/Palestine study tour lamented: “My liberally minded Jewish friends have been hardened against any sort of empathy towards the innocent victims trapped in Gaza, just as many on the Left who have forgotten that Hamas committed such atrocities and holds hostages.”

Sharona, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, interned at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and moved to Israel/Palestine after the program ended, staying for 14 years. She worked for Yesh Din which monitors legal aspects of the occupation and returned to the US after October 7th.

“About a decade of that time was spent working alongside Israelis and international Jews who, together with Palestinians, were dedicated to speaking out against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and the protracted occupation characterized by major human rights organizations worldwide as Apartheid.”

She continued, “October 7th was a jarring moment for everyone, including those of us in the more radical peace and justice camp. As a result, the Israeli left was dealt a deep blow, with nearly everyone having personal friends or family killed or kidnapped, most with more than one loved one. What made this more painful for many was that we faced a significant crackdown by the Israeli government and were regarded by many Israelis as traitors for promoting a pro-peace agenda. Yet, I still believe that Jews and Palestinians must together strive toward a vision of collective liberation.”

On June 4, 2009, as the group finished a briefing at the illegal Jewish outpost of Migron in the West Bank, we boarded our bus and listened attentively to the broadcast of President Obama’s “New Beginning” address in Cairo. The president called on Israel to end its intolerable occupation and promised the US would lead the way toward attaining the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. After the speech, we all had hoped a diplomatic breakthrough would be forthcoming.

But instead, fifteen years later, Israel and Hamas mutually fan the embers of war and hatred. Oh, wonder the students, when will it ever end?


*Several of those who responded requested to withhold their last names, so only the first names of students were included. A version of this article was published in the Palestine-Israel Journal.

About the Author
Yehuda Lukacs, born in Budapest, received his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University's School of International Service. He is Assoc. Professor Emeritus of Global Affairs at George Mason University. In addition to George Mason, he taught at American University, University of Maryland, Corcoran College of Art and Design, University College Cork (Ireland), Eötvös Loránd University-ELTE (Budapest); and as Lady Davis Doctoral Fellow at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (Jerusalem). His books include Israel, Jordan and the Peace Process (Syracuse Uni. Press); The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Documentary Record (Cambridge Uni. Press); Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge Uni. Press); The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change with Abdallah Battah (Westview Press). He is the Executive Producer of the documentary film Migration Studies filmed in Hungary and Serbia in 2017: