The West Bank security barrier, a symbol of disharmony, loomed in the background as I stared out of my classroom window at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. Inside the classroom, I learned side-by-side with Arab Israelis, Palestinian Arabs and Muslims from nearby countries.
Education, I would come to learn during a gap-year program, can sometimes break down walls.
Deferring my enrollment at Cornell University, beginning in late August 2016 I spent two semesters at Hebrew U’s Rothberg International School studying Middle East politics and history, with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was extraordinary to study this decades-old conflict in the very region of the world where it has unfolded.
Professor Naffez Nazzal set the scene in an early lecture in his class, “Palestinians: Modern History and Society.” He said, “We sit in a classroom that is built on land upon which the 1948 Arab-Israeli War was fought. In this semester, history will come alive as we study the complexities of a conflict whose focal point is our present location, the city of Jerusalem.”
And so began my immersion into Jerusalem, its history and its culture.
I woke up each morning in Hebrew University’s Student Village, picked up a café hafuch (Israel’s version of a cappuccino) at Aroma Espresso Bar, and made my way to eye-opening classes including, “The History of the Modern State of Israel,” “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Histories and Narratives” and “Issues in Israeli Society.”
During that first semester, I gained a wealth of knowledge, engaged with international students of all backgrounds and developed relationships with distinguished academics. A profound take-away was that despite the tremendous volatility and tension in the region, I was able to find tranquility in the halls of academia. This serene environment, unperturbed by the surrounding racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, allowed for the coexistence of a multiplicity of viewpoints and people.
No experience during my gap year better demonstrated the power of education to bring people together than the visit of Professor Nazzal’s grandchildren to Hebrew University. Palestinian residents of Ramallah, his family does not have Israeli passports, making visits to Israel a complicated ordeal. Every year, the professor makes the point of overcoming these complications in order to expose his family members to life in Israel and for them to interact with Jewish students. His three adorable grandchildren shattered all cultural and religious barriers as they presented their kindergarten projects to our class.
In March, I began an internship at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a leading think tank and research institute specializing in public diplomacy and foreign policy; it would turn out to be the highlight of my gap year. It was a stimulating experience, sharing an office with former ambassadors, diplomats, international lawyers and authors including Alan Baker (former ambassador to Canada), Lenny Ben-David (a senior Washington-based diplomat), and Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser. Each morning, I hopped aboard the Egged No. 77 bus to the stately, Ottoman period JCPA building in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. Once I arrived, I would be presented with a daily task that ranged from sharing former Ambassador of Israel to the United Nations Dore Gold’s latest piece, “The Legacy of the Taliban: Sunni Allies of Tehran,” on social media, to copy editing former Italian parliament member Fiamma Nirenstein’s new publication, “Lessons from Israel’s Response to Terrorism.”
I had hoped that taking a gap year abroad would expand my horizons, and it did. I got to Cornell equipped with the knowledge and understanding of Middle East politics and history necessary to contribute to class discussions and pro-Israel activities on campus. I began participating in Cornellians for Israel (CFI) and the Middle East research team of the United Nations Association, including work at a Start-Up Nation Technology Fair and volunteering at a CFI-sponsored Culture Fest; I was becoming a skilled pro-Israel advocate.
Recently, during an essay review meeting, I found myself having to make use of these pro-Israel advocacy tools when confronted by my first-year writing seminar (FWS) instructor from Italy. I had just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference, and my FWS instructor took interest in my attendance at this premier pro-Israel gathering. She explained that as a European liberal, any position other than sympathy for the Palestinians and disdain for Israel is incomprehensible. The instructor even invoked the notorious, anti-Zionist historian, Ilan Pappé.
The advocacy toolbox I assembled during my Israel gap year came in handy as I was able to quickly provide an intelligent, balanced response: “One can simultaneously be pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace. I am proud of Israel’s many accomplishments and deeply concerned about the tragic humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I support a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the mold of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and an end to all human suffering.” Satisfied with this response, my FWS instructor then went on to review my essay.
My educational experience extended beyond the walls of the Mount Scopus classrooms as well. The Rothberg International School took me on tours of the Supreme Court of Israel and Ofer Prison (an Israeli incarceration facility in the West Bank). Also, when I was not partaking in university activities, I journeyed with my roommate and now-IDF soldier, Aaron Abel, to the Old City of Jerusalem, Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens, and the ancient ruins of Caesarea.
Naomi Shemer, Israel’s national songwriter, aptly labeled Israel’s capital, “Jerusalem of Gold.” Jerusalem provided me with a golden opportunity for personal enrichment, intellectual exploration and pro-Israel advocacy training.
Avraham Spraragen is a freshman at Cornell University.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.