Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the authors. The Hillel’s Stanford Leadership Delegation trip aimed to provide a variety of perspectives from both Palestinians and Israelis alike. Based on these experiences, students were encouraged to form their own opinions.
In recent years, American college campuses took up the cause of anti-Israel activism. Over 200 Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters popped up nationwide in the past two decades. SJP’s national website compares Zionism — the belief in the establishment, development, and continual protection of a Jewish homeland — to white supremacy and transphobia.
The two of us had the opportunity to visit Israel and form our own opinions about the nation. At the end of August, we were a part of a Stanford Leadership Delegation organized by Stanford Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus. Our 10-day trip included stops across Israel and the West Bank. We met with journalists, former members of the Israeli military, members of religious minority groups, and pro-Palestinian activists. While we also visited cultural and religious sights throughout the nation, we primarily want to focus on the geopolitical aspects of our visit. To discuss everything we heard and saw in Israel would take a short book.
We don’t at all aim to tell give you the solution to the conflict — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far too complex for that. It would be quite naive to even think we could even try because, as everyone knows, there has been no solution to the conflict despite decades of diplomatic efforts in the region. In this piece, we want to show the factors that made it apparent that this is not a one-sided story. It’s not, as SJP would characterize it, an “apartheid” situation. In fact, that's from what we saw, many of the narratives put forth about Israelis in mainstream American media are blatantly false.
An earlier stop on the trip was to Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. We talked to Ardie Geldman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who emigrated to Israel from Chicago. Geldman and his wife moved to Israel back in 1982 and settled in Efrat. Geldman said most in the community moved there for financial reasons as the cost of living in Israel continues to skyrocket. Efrat in no way fits the narratives of Israeli settlements that are typically thrown around. It felt calm — almost similar to an American suburb — and there was no feeling of danger. Neither did the people there seem like religious or political extremists.
Photo: Israeli Settler Ardie Geldman in Efrat’s Synagogue
One of the next stops was further into the West Bank. At this stop, we had a new tour guide, as Israeli citizens are prohibited by their own government from traveling to area A (the part exclusively administered by the Palestinian National Authority) of the West Bank. We visited Ramallah, the de-facto administrative capital for Palestinians, then went to the first planned Palestinian city: Rawabi. Unlike all the other places we visited during our trip, we were given official representatives from the Palestinian Authority. What was initially puzzling was the city’s emptiness, especially considering we were there at 3 pm on a weekday.
Photo: Arts and entertainment Colosseum in Rawabi, West Bank
Many buildings were only partially completed, it appeared they had been sitting unfinished. The city was bespeckled with high-rise condominiums, zip lines, an arcade, a shopping center, and a massive colosseum. Yet, the city was almost completely devoid of people — Hugo Boss and Adidas stores sit without any patrons in the town square.
Photo: Barren Town Square in Rawabi, West Bank
We also had the opportunity to get up close with something we saw throughout the trip — the Israel-West Bank Barrier. This particular portion near Bethlehem was covered in graffiti artwork from Palestinians.
Photo: Anti-Trump Graffiti on the Israel-West Bank Barrier near Bethlehem, West Bank
This graffiti really gave us a glimpse into what average people are thinking in both the West Bank and Israel. What was most interesting was how Palestinians took up a myriad of American leftwing causes in their graffiti, including a part showing Trump kissing the barrier and another in solidarity with George Floyd.
Photo: George Floyd Graffiti on the Israel-West Bank Barrier near Bethlehem, West Bank
While in Bethlehem, we took a trip to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) headquarters. Here we spoke to the local PLO representative. As we walked out, we saw a wall full of photos of Yasser Arafat (chairman of the PLO for decades until his death in 2004) photos and a young man. We later learned that young man, celebrated by the PLO, carried out a shooting against Israeli police at the Temple on the Mount in 2017.
Photo: Yasser Arafat and Temple on the Mount attacker photos at the PLO headquarters in Bethlehem, West Bank
One of the most fascinating stops during our trip was to a Kibbutz (an Israeli commune) less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. There we saw bomb shelters that were painted with cartoon characters for the children in a nearby school. We viewed some of the handmade rockets launched at Israel from Gaza.
Photo: Bomb shelter nearby a school in a Kibbutz less than one mile from Gaza
Photo: Rocket made from a street pole that launched from Gaza
The constant stream of terrorist attacks by Palestinians is a reflection of their belief that Israelis are colonizing their land. Many Palestinians believe these constant attacks on Israel are a means of self-defense. For many Israelis, this is their home country — there is nowhere for them to go “back” to. After the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, hundreds of thousands of Jews went to what is now Israel to restart their lives. Their descendants have no connection to their former home countries.
But, unfortunately, this is not at all how the campus left sees the Israel-Palestine conversation. They see what is at the very least a complex conflict as a one-sided story of ultimate colonial oppression by the Israelis. Unsurprisingly, this dogmatic anti-Israel sentiment often rears its ugly, anti-Semitic head. Stanford was never immune from this shallow, often coarse, discourse. In 2018, a student threatened to “physically fight [Z]ionists on campus.” Three years later, over 100 students and professors signed a letter urging everyone to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This wider anti-Zionist sentiment includes statements about “choking” Zionists from an ASSU Senator and the distribution of anti-Semitic cartoons in dorms.
If we could go back to 1923 or 1948 — the years of the British mandate and the creation of the state of Israel, respectively — with even a fraction of the knowledge we have today, there are certainly decisions that could be made differently to avert or minimize the pain that has come from this conflict. But, the vilification of Israel on college campuses largely comes from a place of ignorance. The next time there is a protest against Israel, we urge all students to take some time to actually understand the real motivations behind the millions of Jews who have made Israel their home. Maybe then, we’ll see discourse on the topic that is worthy of its seriousness.