Many Swarthmore students spend much of their time in classes that help them become intellectually immersed in a variety of complex social, political, and cultural worlds. Rarely, though, are these students able to experience firsthand any of the situations they study.
But over winter break, students from Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace & Confict Studies Sa’ed Atshan’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course had the opportunity to spend ten days on the ground in Israel/Palestine, witnessing for themselves the reality of what they had spent the last semester reading and talking about.
The course, part of the peace and conflict studies program and cross-listed with political science and Islamic studies, covered the historical context of the conflict and how that history informs the current situation. Atshan, who joined Swarthmore’s faculty this fall only nine years after graduating from the college, said that he chose to teach this course for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the subject matter is personal to him, given that he grew up in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, located in the central West Bank.
But Atshan emphasized that the conflict is important for all American citizens to understand, because of the United States’ involvement with Israel. Atshan cited the fact that Israel has received more money in U.S. aid than sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean combined, and stressed the importance of U.S. citizens understanding where that money is going and what it is doing.
While the coursework itself was an in-depth exploration of the conflict, the trip was, for many students, a profound experience that expanded their understanding of the conflict far beyond their readings and discussions.
“It’s just a topic that I wouldn’t be able to fully, fully grasp unless I was able to see it for myself and see everything I learned in class in reality,” said Therese Ton ’19.
Colin Salama ’19, who said he took the course in order to gain a better understanding of a pressing current political issue, agreed that meeting people in the area was a very different experience from reading about them.
“I think the most shocking for me personally, was not even the humanitarian workers … the most interesting for me were just the regular people who were just dealing with the situations they had,” Salama noted.
Atshan organized the trip so that students would have experiences like Salama described, and witness the subject of their studies as it exists in the real world.
“In the natural sciences we do labs, we study this theory and then put it into practice. But in the humanities and social sciences we need more of those experiences,” he pointed out.
Much of the group’s travelling on the trip was facilitated by the tour operator Siraj Center, which, according to its website, emphasizes “the development of responsible tourism, re-branding Palestine as a destination for experiential travel and human connection.”
The group spent the first two days of their trip in Jerusalem, and split the rest of the time between the West Bank and Israel proper. They also had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights on homestays with Palestinian Christian families in Bethlehem.
Professor of Religion Yvonne Chireau chaperoned the trip. Though Atshan himself was unable to join his students for their travels, the students were able to visit their professor’s high school, the Ramallah Friends School, during their time there. Atshan stressed that he wanted students to visit the Quaker school because of Swarthmore’s own Quaker roots.
Each day of their trip brought a packed schedule of meetings with new people, all of them Israeli or Palestinian non-violent human rights or social justice activists. Students also visited important sites, such as the Holocaust museum.
Killian McGinnis ’19 emphasized the importance of hearing about and engaging with the personal experiences of people living in the occupied territories.
“There’s this sense of strength and resilience that was really shocking,” McGinnis noted.
Other students also remarked on the resilience of Palestinians in occupied territories, who carry on their lives in spite of daily violence and deprivation of resources.
“Some of these little things were just amazing to see,” Salama reflected.
Multiple students who went on the trip cited one woman’s story as particularly jarring and affecting. The woman lived in Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village whose water supply was taken over by an Israeli settlement a few years ago. A group of Nabi Saleh residents have since committed to weekly non-violent protests against the Israeli settlements, and are routinely tear-gassed at these protests. The woman they spoke to told the students about the death of her close relative, who was shot in the head with a tear gas cannister and killed on the spot.
In recounting this story, Ton noted the strangeness of hearing it, and being shown a video of the events, all while sitting in this woman’s living room with her children nearby. Other students echoed this sentiment, noting the powerful emotional effect of hearing violent and heartbreaking stories directly from the people who experienced them.
Kate Dunbar ’18 pointed out that the trip was a difficult and frustrating experience in a number of ways, and that making sense of their positionality there was challenging.
“Your place is to be a student and just a student … being there as an American is hard,” she noted. Many students had similar feelings about the trip, but they also found it inspiring.
“The trip was super intense, but it was very humanizing of the conflict,” said McGinnis.
According to Atshan, all the students seemed glad to have gone on the trip. He collected evaluations of the trip from each of the students, and said that they were, across the board, very positive reports. He described the students’ testimonials as “beautiful, heartwarming, and deeply, deeply moving.”
“There were a lot of instances when I was impressed by the hospitality with which we were met and how grateful people were that we were there to listen to what they have to say,” McGinnis recalled.
Salama also pointed out the eagerness with which the activists they met talked to the students.
“A lot of the people that we met, they told us [that] more than anything they wanted people to hear their stories. They didn’t want to just get lost in the media stories [that portray Palestinians in negative light],” Salama said.
In the spirit of spreading stories, the group will be giving a presentation on the trip this coming Monday. Some students spoke of wanting to continue to engage with the conflict in various other ways. Ton noted that some students may be working on a photo exhibition, and that some may engage with the group Students for Justice in Palestine.
Though some of the students did feel motivated to take some kind of action in light of their experience on the trip, Dunbar noted that they should do so with caution.
“We don’t want to take ownership of other people’s pain and suffering,” she asserted. She said that a definite next step for her personally will be to continue to learn and stay informed about the conflict.
The trip was partially funded by the Lang Center and the president’s office, but a majority of the funds came from a private anonymous donor. Because of this funding, all 20 students were able to go on the trip cost-free. Students who went on the trip and subsequently wrote a paper about their experience are receiving .5 credits in the spring semester for doing so.