Hillel Perspectives returns to Israel

PHOTO: Students from University of Oregon and Oregon State University stop to display school flags in Jerusalem's Old City during the 2022 Hillel Perspectives trip to the region. (Courtesy Oregon Hillel)

Conversations around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict are often difficult, especially when those involved lack connection to the myriad perspectives on the situation. That difficulty can be exacerbated by the intense environment that college campuses can create – an issue that Oregon Hillel is looking to address through its upcoming Perspectives trip to the region.
The first Perspectives trips began in California in 2015 by the Maccabee Task Force, an organization founded to oppose anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. Seeing that the usual speakers and presentations weren’t making headway, the idea was to take non-Jewish students, particularly student leaders, to the region to hear the experiences of the people directly involved – Israeli and Palestinian.
“This isn’t a sightseeing trip,” explained Andy Gitelson, Executive Director of Oregon Hillel. “It’s not even an academic trip.”
This will be the third Perspectives trip for Oregon Hillel; the first was in 2019 and the annual trips resumed last year following a pandemic pause. Along with nearly three dozen non-Jewish student leaders from University of Oregon and Oregon State University, five Jewish students with personal connections to Israel from each campus will be joining the trip to provide their own perspective and to provide a point of connection once everyone returns to campus.
“The idea being that these student leaders can engage with those students throughout the year on campus, we can create a cohort,” Gitelson said. “So when antisemitism arises or something involving conversation on Israel arises they have a network.”
One of those Jewish students going on this year’s trip is Romie Avivi, a journalism student at UO who lived in Israel as a child, just 25 miles from Gaza. She’s eager to share her experiences, but also to see another side of what she grew up with. 
“I think obviously as someone who was born in Israel, I have a specific experience within this conflict,” Avivi said. “I will have the opportunity to maybe see it through another lens through maybe a more Palestinian lens, which I think is obviously valuable for me, but I think also for a lot of other people.”
The group’s itinerary, which is still being finalized, looks to include meetings with journalists from The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel, a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, a trip to Israeli settlements in the West Bank to talk to those living there, conversations in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority leaders and Palestinian youth activists, a meeting with a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and with representatives from Roots, an organization working to bridge divides over issues in the area. They’ll also visit Israel’s borders, in the north and near Gaza.
“Our goal isn’t to have them come back, ‘Rah Rah, Israel’ or ‘Rah Rah, Palestine.’ That’s up to them,” Gitelson said. “We really want them to put their feet on the ground, to interact with the people and the voices to understand, like any other democracy, not everything is always pretty and yet there’s people that are living out this experience on a day in, day out basis. How do they see pathways forward?”
“Students around me on social media try to portray it as this very black and white conflict,” Avivi said, “so I’m hoping that by having students from a variety of places around campus have this experience, maybe they understand a little bit the complexity of the conflict when they enter conversations with their peers and their friends and classmates, or if it comes up on social media.”
Gitelson and the team are careful to try and present as even of a perspective as possible – there’s no preparatory reading assigned or even suggested to avoid coloring the experience. And there’s no required work afterward; processing the enormity of the experience is a big enough task.
“We tell them from the beginning, it’s going to take time for all of this to settle in,” Gitelson said.
But that experience forges an undeniable connection – 85 percent of previous participants have attended six or more Hillel events following their return. It’s an added benefit that Gitelson sees as important in a time when antisemitism is on the rise everywhere, college campuses included.
“I think we tackle antisemitism less by educating Jews about antisemitism and more about connecting non-Jews to the Jewish community,” he said.
The primary goal remains, however, to help provide nuance in conversations that are often entirely stripped of such by the intensity of emotion involved and hopefully connect some humanity to one of the world’s most complex conflicts. 
“I think obviously, as someone who was born in Israel, I have a specific experience within this conflict,” Avivi said. “I will have the opportunity to see it through another lens, through maybe a more Palestinian lens, which I think is obviously valuable for me, but I think for a lot of other people.”
“Every inch of soil in that region means something significant to somebody,” Gitelson said. “Every grain of sand is political.”


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