During winter break, I had the pleasure of travelling with USC Hillel to Ertz Israel (Hebrew for “the land of Israel”) via Birthright. A ten-day adventure through Israel, Birthright took me all throughout the country – through the bustling streets of Tel Aviv, the wooded hills of Safed, the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea, and the religious halls of Jerusalem.
A quick explanatory timeout – USC Hillel is a Jewish organization on campus that caters to students of all Jewish backgrounds by hosting religious services and celebrating the holidays, among many other amazing programs. USC Hillel staff administers, plans, and leads Birthright. Birthright is a FREE ten-day trip for anyone between ages 18 and 26 with at least one Jewish grandparent.
My younger brother Evan, a freshman at Arizona State University, had just turned 18 and become eligible for Birthright, so we decided to go together (with 34 other USC students). On Birthright, we saw hundreds of historical artifacts, religious sites, and variations of hummus. More importantly, my brother and I became immersed in Israeli culture; this immersion will most definitely have a lasting impact on me. Focusing on cultural immersion, here are three interesting culture shocks:
Israeli Soldiers On Birthright, Israeli soldiers accompany the American students to provide first-hand perspective on Israeli culture. Six soldiers joined our Birthright caravan – Chen, Chen, Revital, Amit, Michael, and Etai. Having joined the Israeli military at 18 (Israel requires nearly all citizens perform army service), these six soldiers will all the age of college students, some younger than myself. Yet, these soldiers displayed a maturity beyond their years. I guess that makes sense. While I sat in Physics 151, these soldiers learned how to repair and equip Israeli tanks, understand satellite intelligence data, and use weapons to defend their home state from attack. To these soldiers, their “college”, in the American sense, was joining the army, where they grew up and learned to be self-dependent. While no one lifestyle is better or worse than the other, the obvious character differences between a 21-year-old soldier and myself were fascinating.
ISIL On a date early in our ten-day tour, our Birthright group ventured into the Golan Heights, a mountainous area of land won by Israel following the 1967 war. In Israel’s northeast, the Golan Heights borders Syria and Lebanon. Our tour guide led us to the top of a mountain to give us a sweeping view of Syria. And that is when something eerie happened. I could hear gun shots. I could hear explosions. They were faint, but the sounds of war were definitely there. For the first time, ISIL had a sound, and the terror group became very real to me. Truly, we are lucky to live in the United States. To the majority of Americans, ISIL is a far-off threat, one that will hopefully never operate on American soil. But to Israelis and, to a much worse extent, Syrians, ISIL is right around the corner. Fear is a constant.
The Arab Minority The last major realization I had regarded the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation of a Palestinian State. I will not use this blog to voice my opinion on either. Rather, I will talk about an experience I had meeting an Arab Israeli, who almost seemed trapped by circumstance. This elderly man was a young boy living in an Arab village when his village was declared a part of the newfound State of Israel in 1948. While this man supports Israeli, the man’s nationality was forced upon him. The man was automatically an Arab-Israeli and, in the opinions of many Jewish Israelis, a second-class citizen. Yet as a peaceful, law-abiding citizen, the man had done nothing to deserve such lesser treatment.
A student in our group asked the man why he and his family did not move out of Israeli, perhaps into Jordan. The man paused, responding, “My family has lived in this village for hundreds of years. Our jobs are here, our families are here, our lives are here. Israel is safe. Starting a whole new life in Jordan would not be worth it.” This personal story put a face behind the Arab-Israeli conflict and demonstrated that there is no easy solution to a conflict that affects so many people daily.
The moral of this story? As I look forward to my final semester and graduation, a whole wide world awaits me, full of complicated cultures and peoples. I should never cease the ask questions and to learn and discover more about myself and the world around me, even after graduation.
Stay tuned for future blogs capturing the highlights of my final semester. Until then, fight on!Meet Alex