If you bring up Israel/Palestine conflict with me, I hope you’re ready for a meaningful conversation. While most people in my “community” of Jewish friends and family already have their deep-rooted opinions, I have mine… and, usually, many people in that community don’t agree with them.
After being raised in a family that followed the Jewish faith, I chose to study abroad in Israel in 2011. Upon my arrival at the Tel Aviv airport, I came with all the baggage of a young Jewish-American woman who thought she understood it all: who was right (and wrong), who the enemy was, and who could be trusted. I think back now on my opinions and how much they changed as a result of my study abroad experience. Though I chose to study abroad in what many people consider a “dangerous” destination, I took away lessons from my year abroad that showed me how much I still had to learn from the world.
Study abroad is an opportunity: you move to a new country for a term, semester, or year, usually live with other students you may never have met before, attend classes, and participate in social activities in your new “home.” It’s a bit like roulette -- and you never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll experience. In my case, I learned upon arrival that I would be living with a Palestinian woman, Lina. I had even never met a Palestinian before, having grown up in a conservative, Jewish community. To say it was eye-opening is an understatement.
Living with Lina and in Israel not only taught me to reconsider my opinions and biases from home; it taught me that when we study abroad, we have a unique opportunity to learn from our hosts and try and create a more peaceful world. Here’s why studying abroad can help cultivate peace.
You Experience an Eye-Opening New Reality
When you decide to study abroad, you may think it’s just classes in a different country. Ask anyone who has studied abroad and they can tell you it’s much more than that. In addition to new classes, new classmates, and new professors, you’ll experience new worldviews, new ways of thinking, and new opinions and biases about the world.
Despite growing up involved in Jewish activities, I didn’t have a strong structure for my understanding of Judaism -- or for an academic analysis of the religion, culture, and history. I could only see from my perspective, but my classmates brought all of their perspectives to the classroom, too. One of my favorite classes was called “The Arab Israeli Conflict.” In it, my professor really opened my eyes to a lot of topics and opinions that the media or your Jewish elders would never want to discuss. These gave me a better framework to understand my connection to Israel, as well as others.
You Meet Actual Humans With Life Stories as Valuable As Your Own
While I certainly have Israeli friends who have experienced extreme hardship, my social circle back home didn’t expose me to “the other” -- in opinion or experience. I had never met an Israeli-Arab or Palestinian before I studied abroad in Israel; it’s almost impossible to imagine now how I thought I understood the world without meeting people from different walks of life.
Studying abroad provides unique experiences to learn from those who have different experiences than our own. Whether it was my suitemate, fellow classmates, a young pair of Arabs I met at local pizza restaurant, or the security guard who introduced me to the Druze faith, my study abroad experience taught me that the people involved in any situation have important stories to share, and from which to learn.
You Make Friends with People Who Change Your Life
At first, my Palestinian roommate Lina and I did not get along. Like most young roommates, we had arguments about how the house should be kept -- issues which now seem silly and small when I look back on all the experiences I had with Lina, and how our friendship developed.
One night, I sat at our table while Lina cooked dinner, and worked up the courage to ask her about growing up in Palestine. She shared harrowing stories with me which helped me see there was no “right” and “wrong” in some situations. She told me of the violence she had experienced at 14-years old, and when I asked her who she blamed, her reply was surprising: “I blame them both.”
I spent as much time as I could getting to know Lina after that, but it was hard. After all, sometimes when she went home for a weekend, she could not get back through the checkpoints for days. Before I finished my study abroad experience in Israel, I wrote her a letter telling her that having her as my roommate has impacted me more than she would ever know.
Study abroad is a rare opportunity to meet, study, and live with people you would probably never encounter any other time in your life. If you can view these new people as potential friends and seize the opportunity to learn from them in whatever way they can teach you, you’ll gain more than just academic knowledge while studying abroad.
You Return Home a New Person
After studying abroad anywhere in the world, coming home is hands down the hardest part. Everything is different, and suddenly, it’s hard to understand how you fit into the one place you’ve known so well. Many students -- like me -- come home unsure about how they can translate the life-changing experience of studying abroad into everyday life, into the classrooms and conversations they left behind.
The most important thing you can do is be a kind person in your community. Bring back the open-mindedness, friendliness, and willingness to learn from others that you demonstrated while studying abroad. You might not solve the world’s problems, but you can and will be better at empathizing with those around you the more you talk to people.
I can’t count the conversations I’ve had since my study abroad experience, where I’ve helped others gain a sliver of the understanding I gained -- of human nature, peace, and war -- from my study abroad experience. I didn’t envision myself as a peace-maker through study abroad, but my experience naturally made me learn to be. If you let it, your study abroad experience will also teach you powerful ways to cultivate peace in the world, and you can bring those home to help shape your own community for the better too.