Summer Program Offers Students a Different View of Palestinian Life
by Daphna Berman (Note: This article was published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in July 2005).
Most days, Lee Gargagliano of Brooklyn hitchhikes and then takes the bus from his hosts'' home in a small village outside Beit Sahour to Bethlehem , where he volunteers at an orphanage. A participant in the Palestine Summer Encounter (PSE), he then spends the rest of his day learning Arabic, taking day trips around the West Bank and getting to know his host family, who compel him to consume unimaginable quantities of food and hot tea. Gargagliano, like some of the other PSE students, could have chosen the birthright program that offers all Jewish college students a free trip to Israel and saved a few thousand dollars in the process. But the 20-year-old college student finds the idea of being able to travel for free, simply because of his Jewish heritage, "appalling."by Daphna Berman (Note: This article was published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in July 2005).
Most days, Lee Gargagliano of Brooklyn hitchhikes and then takes the bus from his hosts'' home in a small village outside Beit Sahour to Bethlehem , where he volunteers at an orphanage. A participant in the Palestine Summer Encounter (PSE), he then spends the rest of his day learning Arabic, taking day trips around the West Bank and getting to know his host family, who compel him to consume unimaginable quantities of food and hot tea.
Gargagliano, like some of the other PSE students, could have chosen the birthright program that offers all Jewish college students a free trip to Israel and saved a few thousand dollars in the process. But the 20-year-old college student finds the idea of being able to travel for free, simply because of his Jewish heritage, "appalling." Indeed, PSE offers a new alternative for a different sort of American college student who wants to get a closer look at the political and social situation here - but isn''t interested in programs that gloss over life beyond the Green Line. Like birthright, PSE aims to humanize the conflict beyond media images, but it also tries to familiarize students with the Palestinian plight, a narrative that the students say is simply harder to access in the United States. And unlike the ISM (International Solidarity Movement), participants are not sent to the front lines at demonstrations and house demolitions, but are more involved in social activities in the communities that host them.
PSE, then, presented the perfect opportunity for the 50 students who arrived three weeks ago to study Arabic, live with a Palestinian family, volunteer in the West Bank , and essentially get up close and personal with an issue they''ve only been exposed to - however fleetingly - on television.
"It''s much easier to get the Israeli side of things at home," Kim Crane, a 20-year-old from Virginia explained last week during the group''s visit to the Jerusalem headquarters of B''Tselem, a human rights organization. "In the media, we hear about bombs going off and people being killed - but not much about ordinary Palestinians trying to rebuild their lives." "I go to a conservative school that doesn''t really have a large minority population and what we hear in the media is basically what we believe and what we think," added Allison McGhee, who recently graduated from James Madison University . "I think we''re all trying to go beyond that." Already in its second year, PSE is growing and registration has nearly doubled since its inaugural session last summer.
Run by the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem , together with the Middle East Fellowship program, which is based in the U.S. , the program has attracted students from Sweden , Japan and Norway. Though half of the participants are practicing Christians -both the Holy Land Trust and Middle East Fellowships are religious organizations - PSE has also attracted a number of Jews, as well as Arabs. Many are majoring in conflict studies, Middle Eastern history or political science. Some are active in the Free Palestine groups on their campuses, while still others are just curious. For most, however, living with Palestinians in and around Bethlehem is their first exposure to Palestinians or Israelis.
"Everyone comes with an open mind and our opinions are definitely not set in stone," said one student, who preferred to go unnamed and wears a necklace with a Palestinian flag spread across the outline of the State of Israel. As part of the program, participants travel around the West Bank and often into Israel to meet with Israeli human rights activists. Their trip to the Jerusalem office of B''Tselem last week allowed them to ask questions about UN cooperation, the response of the Israeli public, and the somewhat precarious position of a human rights organization that invariably finds itself at odds with the military establishment. As part of the program, participants are also paired with host families. They share meals, take part in family celebrations, and take advantage of their host''s free Arabic homework help. Most of all, though, the participants say they are able gain intimate knowledge of an average Palestinian family''s routine living under military occupation. "Sometimes, we''ll be having a normal dinner conversation and then they''ll start talking about a friend who had the wrong permits and died of heat exhaustion, or they''ll talk about having to go through checkpoints to get to school," explained Kim Crane, who is studying economics and had never been to the region before.
"It''s kind of strange because then we''ll got back to talking about everyday stuff, and have normal dinner conversation. Before I came here, I thought about occupation as a physical thing, but living with my host family has made me realize that it''s also psychological." Participants also spend a large chunk of their day volunteering in the community at places like the Palestinian Prisoners'' Society in Bethlehem , the YMCA in Beit Sahour or the municipality in Beit Jala. "Organizations like the ISM send their participants to the front lines and while we''re okay with that, we''re more interested in listening to other needs of the Palestinian people," explained Joshua Keaney, travel coordinator at the Middle East Fellowship.
"Those needs can be playing basketball with kids at a summer camp, writing a grant for a Palestinian organization or helping out at a physiotherapy clinic. There''s a lot that''s needed on a social, and not political, level." Both participants and administrators insist that PSE is mostly nonpolitical and advocates, above all, international human rights. "Our goal is really just to create a linkage between Palestinians and internationals throughout the world," George Rishmawi, co-director of the program said in a telephone interview from the offices in Bethlehem . He could not get a permit to join the group''s visit to B''Tselem in Jerusalem last week.
"We want to introduce a human face of the Palestinians, which is rarely encountered in the media. Of course, participants will encounter politics, just by being here, but we certainly don''t encourage them to be activists. If they want to go back to their campuses and do something, then it''s their choice," he said. But participants say that just two weeks into the program, they''ve already begun to cement their plans for the return home, a time when they think they will be able to make the most "difference." "I''ll be making presentations to my school and to my church," promised one participant. "It''s amazing what college students can accomplish - if you can just make them a little aware and active."