We are far from the Hilltop, a group of three chaperones responsible for a contingent of nineteen high school students, many of whom are traveling for the first time. Our destination is not an “easy” one either: we are bound for Israel and Palestine, a place that frequently headlines international news and, owing to the then-upcoming Israel election, was under specific pressure during our visit. Almost all our students were entirely new to the Middle East and possessed varying levels of knowledge and bias about the region.
Casten Trips are, by definition, adventures into the unknown, yet in some ways, this trip seemed to present more than the usual degree of challenge. When I first proposed the trip, I did so because, as a teacher of the Middle East, I understand how profoundly misunderstood the region can be in America. At the same time, I know just how important it is to the people of the Middle East that Americans understand Israel and Palestine in its full complexity; the United States has had and will continue to have a large role in the lives of people who call that place home, and we owe it to them to ensure our next generation knows something of the reality behind coverage we get across the Atlantic. Now, my fellow chaperones and I needed to engage these students in that vision.
Amidst the work of managing this trip, I found myself feeling grateful. The surprising loci of my gratitude on this trip was a pool table. The hostel that was our home in Jerusalem for seven of our ten nights in the country included a room for playing pool, just off the lobby, and it was in this room where we gathered every night to discuss the day’s events. The table itself was mostly ignored during our conversations. Instead, we mostly sat in the chairs or benches lining the perimeter of the room, turning the green velveted surface into a proxy Harkness table as we listened to one another’s impressions and reflections from the day’s journey.
For me, it was these conversations that made all the work of putting this experience together worth it. Whether it was listening to raves about just how good the falafel really was, or hearing a student declare that they have never seen a place “where history matters so much to everyone,” that pool table provided us the space to unpack our daily experiences and return not just with memories, but with a newly forged ability to embrace the nuances and complexities of Israel and Palestine.
The best way I can think of giving back is to share some of the lessons we learned through conversations over that pool table.
“I’m surprised about how our guides can disagree so much and yet still kind of get along,” says a sophomore student over our pool table discussion after we return from a day in which we visited the Old City of Jerusalem. For almost our entire trip, we traveled with two tour guides: one Jewish-Israeli, named Elad, and one Muslim-Arab-Palestinian, named Samer. Frequently, when one of our guides would explain something we encountered, the other would offer his own take on the same sight.
When Elad pointed out the number of security cameras that watched the entrances to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, he called attention to the rigor with which Israel pursues security in what is perhaps the densest area of religiously significant sites in the world. Samer quickly responded, “those cameras aren’t there to keep Israelis safe, they are there to spy on Arabs.” He elaborated by explaining the difficult choice many Arab families living in the Old City face: to remain, but endure Israeli surveillance and Israeli neighbors, or leave and surrender claims to houses they’ve likely had in their family for generations.
Elad nods and points towards some nearby roofs; they had a playground on them which was surrounded by metal fencing and barbed wire. Those homes, Elad explains, are owned by Jewish families who had moved into traditionally Arab apartments after those families decided to leave Jerusalem. Fearing for their safety due to their proximity to the remaining Arabs, the state of Israel had paid for the installation of the cameras and the fences.
Elad concludes with a joke, “To some Israelis, my friend, spying on Arabs is the only thing that can make them feel safe, so they spend all their time watching you. Maybe if we were in charge, everyone would sleep a little better and a little longer, eh?” Samer laughs at this, shakes his head, and we move on in our tour.
The disarming power of humor, then, was the lesson I directed the curious sophomore to as she processed this exchange.
In a place rife with tension, where every statement is political, and there is no such thing as an objective view, humor can play a powerful role in getting regular people through their day.
Back at the hostel, a senior follows up on this point about humor and co-existence. She says, “Yeah, I noticed that too, it is refreshing to me. So many conversations I have with friends at home end when we disagree with one another because we don’t want to make one another upset, but here, it’s like ‘Go for it! Tell me what you really think!’”
Part of Hackley’s mission is to challenge students “to learn from … varying backgrounds and perspectives…,” and all too often we can prioritize locating the different perspectives so much that we lose sight of the fact that this kind of learning also mandates the development of certain skills and mental dispositions. Putting people who see the world differently in the same room, in other words, does not make for much meaningful learning if those people do not know how to talk to one another in a generative way.
Every day in Israel and Palestine our students spoke to people who never have the choice to opt out of conversations where there are multiple perspectives. When it comes to this part of the world, there are simply too many opinions in too little space for anyone to live in the kinds of thought-bubbles that can arise in the United States. When our students sat down to speak with Israel and Palestinian teenagers enrolled in a program called Kids4Peace, which works to build understanding and friendship between the two groups at an early age, they were immediately bombarded with questions we in American would likely characterize as “a bit too forward.” “Are you pro-Trump?” asked one Israeli. “What about us, do you support the state of Israel?” asked another.
Initially many of our students were shy to respond. When I asked them about it later, they said they didn’t want to offend these kids whom they had just met. Eventually, a brave ninth grader decided to answer some of their question directly, “I have always supported Israel,” she began, “but I didn’t know about the Palestinian situation until I came here and saw what you guys live through every day.” To her surprise, it was the Israeli student who replied, “Yes I feel very similar to you. I obviously support my country, but it was not until I joined Kids4Peace that I felt any sympathy for the other side.”
It took some time for our students to realize that speaking their mind and sharing their authentic selves was not taboo here, but, on the contrary, the best way to forge connections their Israeli and Palestinian peers (I’m told they are now all friends on Instagram…). So, there’s lesson two: when confronted with difficult questions, honesty, while not being the easiest way to respond, can forge powerful connections and mutual understandings. It is an approach that can often be overlooked in places blessed with less density and fewer tensions than Israel and Palestine, but it is one I will be looking to cultivate in myself and my students in the coming years.
We ended our trip by watching the sun set behind the Mediterranean from a pier in the old port of Jaffa. Tel Aviv, the largest and most modern Israeli city, has grown to effectively surround Jaffa, which was the Palestinian port town long before the state of Israel ever came into existence. Endings are usually a good moment to reflect on the success of a project, and as I looked around at our students, some thoughtfully staring off into the horizon, some writing in their journals, and some laughing with friends, I felt immense pride for the effort they’d put forward over the past ten days to learn about and grow from the beautiful, challenging, and complex culture that is Israel and Palestine. We had set out to help our students better understand the politics, history, and culture of this region, and we succeeded there.
What I believe the two lessons above also show, however, is that, beyond intellectual development, this Casten Trip also helped our students grow in character as they learned how to navigate difficult conversations first hand, from the people who have to do it every day.
Steele Sternberg is a member of the Hackley History Department and serves as Round Square Representative.