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Foreignizing the Familiar

How would you explain your home country to a group of foreigners in 10 days? Would you show them the good, the bad, and the ugly? If an American Democrat, would you take a group of visitors to a Tea Party rally, or would you try to pretend such events are irrelevant?

These are difficult questions to answer. Now imagine trying to explain Israel, one of the most unique countries in the world, to 50 visiting Harvard undergraduates who have no real connection to the country. Six Israeli undergraduate students, Zaki Djemal ‘15, Sharon Stovetsky ’15, Yael Stovetsky ’16, Yoav Schaefer ’17, Gal Wachtel ’17, and Nuseir Yassin ’14, undertook this task over spring break, leading and organizing the Harvard College Israel Trek in an effort to guide their peers through the complexity that is Israel. We had the lucky opportunity to be a part of this journey.


It would have been easy for these six Israeli organizers to show us participants a particular view of life in Israel: the striking beauty of Jerusalem, the weightless fun of the Dead Sea, the intensity of high-tech in Tel Aviv. Indeed, there is much to marvel at and to celebrate within the story of this nation. In our first weekend alone, we were enveloped by the country’s exceptional energy as Purim revelers welcomed us into their celebrations. However, the vitality of this country coexists with an intense complexity. Our organizers were intent on exposing our group to a nuanced Israel. Instead of relying on sterile textbook answers, our organizers invited us right into their homes, allowing us to question and learn from their own personal stories and those of their broad-ranging contacts and friends.

On our first night in Jerusalem, our entire group had a home cooked Shabbat dinner at the residence of  Zaki Djemal ’15 in which we were taught the customs of Shabbat from a number of different Jewish practices. A few days later, we visited the Arab-Israeli village of Arraba, home to Nuseir Yassin ‘14. There, we had dinner with members of the community who spoke to us about their experiences growing up as a minority in Israel. After a night spent dancing dabke with them, we emerged with a host of new friends as well as new voices to add to our rapidly expanding volume of Israeli narratives.

Our trek leaders’ commitment to showing us their country without any window dressing certainly did not come without pain on their end, as they confronted some troubling aspects of Israel’s past and present alongside us. Given their dedication to honest dialogue, we as participants were particularly frustrated when we were confronted with a flurry of negative press responding to our visit to Ramallah halfway through the trip. Bloggers found a tweeted picture of our trip featuring our group in front of Yasser Arafat’s marble grave and responded to it as if it spoke to our entire experience. Some commentators praised our trek for uniquely trying to show a group of visiting undergraduates a broad perspective that included a visit to Ramallah. But many others criticized our trip organizers for having us visit the grave of a terrorist.

This incident was upsetting, as it ignored the personal effort and intense dedication of our organizers to create a diverse experience for us. And yet, though saddening, the polarized media reaction actually exhibited the importance of their efforts. In reality, our day in the West Bank exposed us to an extremely wide political spectrum. We started our day in a Jewish settlement speaking to a Rabbi about his perceived religious right to a home on that plot of land. A mere two hours later, we met with leading members of Fatah to discuss the history of their campaign to create a Palestinian state. We ended the visit eating dinner with friends of one of our leaders from Ramallah who presented many challenging and provocative viewpoints on the conflict. At the end of the day, we understood more than ever why the famous Israeli author, Amos Oz, describes the conflict as a tragic “clash of right and right.”

Although this trip was a rare opportunity, we believe that the mindset our organizers embodied—open to sharing and seeking out different opinions—could reinvigorate engagement surrounding key issues on campus. Here, amid the hundreds of events hosted on campus every day, we often stick to our pet causes and fail to engage with views that may challenge our own, shrugging off causes we have no immediate connection to. We’re inundated with information about Harvard’s negotiations with labor unions, the annexation of Crimea, and divestment from fossil fuels but we often don’t take the time to understand the motives behind these movements and the issues that are at stake.

Of course, it’s impossible to engage with every issue that falls outside of our understanding. But perhaps if we are committed to asking one uncomfortable question each day, we can better draw on the wealth of perspectives that each of us brings to this campus. On the other hand, in order to be true ambassadors of our backgrounds, we must be committed to inviting these open dialogues and—sometimes—critiques. If our Israeli organizers could take on this challenge in representing their dynamic and fraught home country, we too should be emboldened to share our stories over dinner in the comfort of our dining halls. We may never lead 50 foreigners to our hometowns, but we can all gain from broaching foreign subjects, and exposing our presumptions to scrutiny.

Elizabeth W. Pike ’15, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Isabel H. Evans ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Adams House.


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