Riots across the Middle East continue to shake the region as thousands of protestors fill the streets, demanding change from autocratic rulers that have clung to power, at times desperately, for decades. Egypt in particular teeters on the edge of collapse as the presidency of Hosni Mubarak fails to meet the demands of embattled citizens who have spent days arching for change. In the face of all this chaos, we look to a group of five students here at St. Lawrence who opted out of a long winter break skiing at home and instead spent ten days traveling through Israel and Palestine in January. While they missed the unrest that has erupted in recent days, they were immersed in a world that gave their research a whole new lement.
A research trip with far reaching consequences, it gave all of them all the opportunity to experience and reflect on the conflict. The trip spanned ten days from January 10th to the 20th, and was sponsored by the Van Wormer family, who left a grant to promote research for the government department. In an interview, Government Professor Ronnie Olesker, who served as an advisor for the five students, said, “My objective was to show them what it was like on the ground.” In a separate interview, the students emphasized the power of the “on-the-ground” approach.
Keefe Foster–whose research focuses on the use of new technologies and media outlets within the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to project their side of the story, and make people aware of their causes and hardships—said “When using books and data, it’s very abstract. I was focused solely on getting the research data I needed; but as soon as I landed, this objective based focus was thrown out the window because it was so immersive being there.” George Cuchural spoke of a closeness
that marked the region, “You see the wall where a thousand people died, the Wailing Wall, and right there is the Al Aqsa Mosque. We took a picture with Ronnie with my arm around her and we got yelled at, because she was a woman.” Cuchural is writing his research paper on identity, and with the trip he got to see different types of people, and he walked away with a deeper understanding. “It’s hard because there are so many conflicts on so many levels,” he explained.
Zlata Unerkova mentioned an array of courses she has taken on the ME region. Her research is on intergroup relationships in Israel, and she describes the field experience as vastly different because of the conflict that she was able to witness firsthand, society and interactions with the people much more effectively.
Matt Iacono is addressing economics in the regfion, and examining whether or not economic cooperation is a viable option. “I was surprised to see so many people doing so many different things, a lot of grass roots movements,” he said of groups working to help establish peace.
In traveling together, the four had similar experiences and reactions to what they witnessed, and this rang true for a wide range of topics. On security, they all felt safe, and were fortunate enough to avoid any major incidents involving check points or searches. But they did notice a drastic difference between traveling around Israel with a blonde tour guide, versus one of Arab descent. On the culture and social life, Ianocono said right away, “Phenomenal food, absolutely phenomenal.” The others echoed similar sentiments; they all agreed Ramallah had a great nightlife. Unerkova stated, “You don’t get that studying books.” Cuchural and Iacono were even invited to play poker, although they were unable to attend because of scheduling. The group was busy, according to Olesker, as they traveled to Ramallah, Hebron, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Oasis of Peace, settlements and more.
They met with representatives from both Israel and Palestine, and activists of both nationalities, as well. Of a spokeswoman for Israel’s new media desk from Boston, Foster said “she was very candid; she said it was likely
Israel would go to war with Lebanon soon, and she was open about a raid in Palestine where IDF soldiers shot and killed an elderly man getting out of bed.” Unerkova mentioned a young Israeli woman who told them about her two best friends, both killed by a suicide bomber. “She was galvanized; she joined and served the IDF, then went to grad school near Gaza. She had a turning point, though, when she watched the war on Gaza unfold over her head,” Unerkova said. They all mentioned that they were impressed with people’s ability to turn around and embrace the other side, even after tragedy. “These aren’t government officials, they’re ordinary people.” Unerkova said. Foster agreed and said, “Everyone has had their own experiences, everyone’s been affected. Even peace activists have their stories, but those are the ones who’ve [already] had a moment of clarity, a turning point.”
Olesker also stressed this activism. “There’s a lot of people laying groundwork for a peace process,” but she’s not optimistic, “I don’t see one happening,” she said. “The trip was both hopeful and depressing,” she explained that while it was exciting, she felt that after seeing everything, the students did not see a way out. An Israeli herself, Olesker has returned the region several times since her childhood. She said, “Since the last time I was there, it’s only gotten worse.
Although there is improvement to state building and infrastructure, it’s getting harder and harder for me to see a viable two state solution, especially considering Hamas and settlers—the spoilers.”
After ten days traveling, the students took a week off from meeting, they were drained. Even by the end of each day there, Matt said, “it was like we just wanted to change the channel.” Although there are so many different people doing different things, it’s disheartening because each side isn’t aware of what the other is doing. They, like Olesker, weren’t hopeful, either. “It’s hard to think about,” said George.
Perhaps this is the most depressing notion—even young students with fresh eyes and sans tragic stories can’t see a way out. But as more and more students, scholars, citizens and soldiers, fill the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, perhaps some semblance
From left, Keefe Foster, Matt Iacono, George Cuchural, Igor Dabitk, Zlata Unerkova traveled to Israel and Palestine for their SYE research papers.