An Unorthodox Israeli Pilgrim - OZY | A Modern Media Company

An Unorthodox Israeli Pilgrim

An Unorthodox Israeli Pilgrim

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

A woman walks out into the Dead Sea.


Figuring out what’s fact versus propaganda in Israel and Palestine is no small feat.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu is a graduating senior at Stanford University who can’t stop traveling.

I’d been anticipating this trip for months — a chance to go on a quasi Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. That’s the infamous program that annually sends some 50,000 wide-eyed Jewish pilgrims ages 18 to 26 to Israel. Detractors write it off as Zionist propaganda; proponents laud it as a way for those of Jewish heritage to connect with the world’s only Jewish state. I should mention one thing: I’m not Jewish.

No, I didn’t smuggle myself past the Israel Defense Forces in some cockamamy push for free cultural enrichment. And it wasn’t a publicity stunt. That said, the whole thing did start with public relations.

It’s no secret that Israel has one of the worst PR reps in the world. So, in 2013, Gideon Meir, Israel’s Foreign Ministry director general for public diplomacy, proposed a radical idea for a Birthright-like program geared toward young non-Jews. The program would “influence the haters and help enlighten them,” Meir said, though no official plans came to fruition. Even so, Israeli-backed programs under a similar guise have started to crop up in the U.S., including the Ivy Plus Leadership Mission to Israel and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. Taglit-Birthright Israel went so far as to relax its definition of “Jewish” in order to attract more people to the Holy Land.

I was intrigued. I looked around and stumbled on Project Interchange, which more or less does what Meir had pitched. Its excursions are geared toward diverse groups — university provosts, water management officials, South Florida Hispanic journalists — the list goes on (and gets more oddly specific). I opted for a trip created especially for California student leaders, and after a three-part application plus friendly phone interview, I was in. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Three months later I found myself with 10 other frugal 20-somethings embarking on a 10-day immersion trip to Israel with Project Interchange. All of us were excited to glean firsthand experience in one of the most contested countries on earth. And it was a free trip.

The Israeli Defense Forces.

The Israel Defense Forces.

Still, when I checked into my Tel Aviv-bound flight on a sleepy Saturday morning after Christmas, I was skeptical. I knew it wouldn’t be a relaxing vacation, which part of me was totally pining for it to be. But would the meatier stuff be anything more than pro-Israeli political smoke and mirrors? My fellow travelers shared my skepticism. “What other reason would they have to send non-Jews to Israel than to get more people on their side?” said Corey Polant, a sociology major at San Diego State University who was on the other side of the aisle. I wasn’t sure if Israel was trying to creep out from under its tarnished spotlight by changing hearts and minds one by one, or if I was on a very long flight to bunk.

A mile away from Gaza, we listened to Capt. Kobi Harush touting his collection of rockets fired by neighbors who lie on the other hillside.

As expected, Israel was gorgeous, and I got my fill of sightseeing. I floated in the Dead Sea, rode on an all-terrain vehicle in the desert and hunted for hummus hot spots in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, the core of the trip was anything but lightweight. Each day, we met for five to six back-to-back hours with 25 politicians, journalists, businesspeople, lawyers and religious leaders. It was a dizzying mix of Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Ethiopians and Russians.

We followed our tour guide around Israel — not unlike a flock of suntanned, tourism-drunk sheep — visiting everything from kibbutz communities to checkpoints in the West Bank to fledgling startups in Tel Aviv. But here’s the thing that made my experience unusual: I spent about half the trip exploring the West Bank, something that does not happen on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. One day, we met with Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, who explained his “friendly” relationship with Hamas. The next day, we stood a mile away from Gaza listening to Capt. Kobi Harush, the coordinator of security for the city of Sderot, touting his hefty collection of rockets fired by his neighbors who lie just on the other hillside.

Yet contrary to popular belief, Israel is more complicated than what I have learned in classes and watched on TV. From waging war on the ground to negotiating at the table, scarred Israelis and Palestinians tend to act through the trauma of their past and the harsh realities of the present. Granted, I’m no Norman Finkelstein, now. That said, several scribbled notes and tour bus rides later, I have gained a  more nuanced understanding from the people who are living through those big events, the political conflict and the economic story in Israel. I now feel more equipped to unpack the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with both my pro-Palestinian, Facebook-ranting friends and my Israeli flag-waving classmates back in U.S.

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from my Birthright-like escapade is that every piece of Palestinian advocacy or Israeli news item that comes my way is now taken with a grain of salt. One 10-day trip to Israel might not be able to change minds, but surely it can fuel some intelligent questions and crack open one or two closed minds.

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