How can we make sure that the next generation of journalists is well informed about Israel? That was the idea behind the Union of Jewish Students' recent
‘Bridges not Boycotts’ trip for student journalists from all faiths and cultures. I was part of the group of 14, and the only one who had visited Israel before.
My experience of Israel is similar to that of many Jewish students, focused on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the key Jewish tourist sites. I'd certainly never seen the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or the backstreets of Ramallah in Area A of the West Bank.
The rest of the group had never visited Israel before and mostly based their knowledge on headlines. All showed a spirit of curiosity and openness throughout the trip despite having heard conflicting and negative views. One student had been told that Israel is an apartheid state by her university lecturer. And Leeds student Sagar Roy, originally from Mumbai, was surprised that there is an Israeli Left at all.
Student Sophie Thomas wanted to go on the trip despite concerns. “My parents and I were initially a bit sceptical about safety because of the conflict.” But her fears “went away as soon as I arrived in Tel Aviv.”
The trip started in North London with a briefing meeting at JW3 where we heard from a historian, a Palestinian-Israeli and an Israeli diplomat who left us with the question- “is Israel a melting pot or a tossed salad?” I'm still trying to work it out!
Thomas said the trip gave her “a perspective I would have never originally considered.” There was a wide range of speakers to demonstrate the complexity and nuances of the conflict with no forced agenda visible. In refreshing contrast to the ill informed, angry and partisan voices heard on campus, this trip offered information in a respectful tone.“It’s been fascinating to learn from both sides to make my own informed opinion," she added..
The challenges to press freedom for both Palestinians and Israelis were particularly interesting to the group of student journalists. The editor in chief of Palestine News Network, Monjed Jadou, said his employees’ press cards aren’t recognised by the Israeli army (IDF). And Israel Police National Spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, explained that freedom of the press must sometimes be limited if there is a heightened security risk.
Janet Mikhals, ex-mayor of Ramallah and Oded Revivi, mayor of the West Bank settlement Efrat both spoke about the significance of checkpoints to those living in the West Bank and Settlements. The separation ‘fence’ that runs between the West Bank and pre-67 Israel has been made into a tourist attraction in Bethlehem where political slogans and cartoon characters Rick and Morty are pasted on the wall alongside unflattering images of Trump ("Trumpy Pumpkin") and Netanyahu. Artist Banksy has weighed in with his 'Walled Off’ hotel, built in the claustrophobic shadow of the wall. Bethlehem itself feels like the Arab shuk (market) in Jerusalem with corny stall names like "Star and Bucks."
We also visited ‘Rawabi’- a Qatari backed vision built of white stone and housing a fancy Q mall (Q for Qatar) with global stores like Mango and Swarovski. On our tour we saw the vast amphitheatre (the largest outdoor theatre in the Middle East), seemingly empty houses, a Bedouin tent (with wifi- for parties) and told about the vineyards. Our guide pointed to ‘Rawabi Extreme’, an outdoor sports theme park (complete with a zip-line) and the projected water park.
A model of peaceful coexistence exists in the Arab/Jewish village of Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam where all the kids play football, study and grow up together. In Jerusalem, we met budding young entrepreneurs of all backgrounds at Meet (Middle Eastern Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow) who work together on business projects, forging bonds that transcend political barriers.
In Berlin bar in Ramallah, feminist activist/ artist Yasmeen Mjhalli told us about her ‘#NotYourHabibiti’ (sweetheart) campaign against sexual assault and harassment. "We f**ed up. We let the Occupation be an excuse not to work on ourselves," she says.
After long intense days, the group seemed pleasantly surprised by the shisha bar on a rooftop in Bethlehem and the shots (of Arak) in Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem a few days later. The headlines, on both sides, rarely show the bustling nightlife and culture. On the trip we had just one rule- after we order our Goldstar beers, no politics was discussed.
Emma Jacobs is a first year journalism student at the University of Leeds