Reflections from Hillel’s Israel Insight Fellowship 2022



January 26, 2023

Preparing for my trip to Israel through the Israel Insight Fellowship (IIF), I had many American colleagues asking, “why would you think of going to Israel in a time like now.” In full honesty, I applied to IIF on a whim, accepted on a whim, and took a connecting flight to Tel Aviv four months later — failing to tell many people I was going out of the country for a week. I surprised myself as well.

 However, I sought after this fellowship out of a simple desire to understand. When going through the application process, I was asked to go beyond my narrow, Westernized understanding of the conflict taught by academia and influenced by a polarized media landscape. My goal was to seek out Israeli and Palestinian stories that are often forgotten in the light of news coverage. And that is exactly what I sought to gain from this experience: going in with a vulnerable heart and a curious mind, humanizing the lives behind the headlines and statistics, and bringing back the previously untold stories of those living among the land of Israel and Palestine.

As I reflect on my trip, there are two interactions that remain top of mind, months later: 

On day four of the Israel Insight Fellowship, we traveled to Shiloh Valley to meet with residents in the area. The land looked a lot like the land I grew up with in southern Texas; shriveled with the baking of the sun, leaving the cattle on the new farms of Malachei haSharet and Givat Harashash to graze on the short grass that fought the heat. While agriculture served as means to provide Kosher food for the local settlements, the ranch manager disclosed another reason for the long-grazing breeds on the farm: land. Raised in the ideology of the extreme religious–nationalist organization known as the Hilltop Youth, the ranch manager (who has since left Hilltop Youth) believed that all of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, regardless of who occupies the land.

By grazing the land, he is keeping it for future Jewish development. Where he lives is not technically legal under Israeli law; he can farm the land, but the sizable house underneath the large pile of hay bales is not disclosed to the Israeli government. He explained his logic for expanding the outposts, but I still failed to understand why they were so important to these people; what land is so necessary to protect to the point of hiding their homes in hay bales to evade the law? It was a measure beyond the extent of the imaginable for me. 

I found these extreme measures  to extend to both Israelis and Palestinians. On the seventh day, we had the opportunity to travel to the Gaza Border. Our guide, who had brokered multiple negotiation deals with Gaza during his time in the IDF, managed to convince a local Palestinian living in Gaza to briefly talk to us as he waited for transportation (a common occurrence for the thousands of Gazans employed by businesses in Israel). Through deliberately chosen words, a hushed tone, and his answers to cherry-picked questions, I learned a lot about his daily life. What was the most shocking to me was his request that only English, not Hebrew, be spoken; he said he loved his Jewish neighbors, but was worried about the consequences of speaking with us.Yet again, I left another interaction confused. Why would someone risk so much to live in a place where there is fear of speaking the language of the so-called enemy? 

Talking to students at Sapir College, Israel’s largest public college (located just two miles from the Gaza border), a student answered the question that I had been grappling with: If no one is willing to call their homeland home, who will? Both of the people whose stories I shared – one Israeli, and one Palestinian – live in these places not out of luxury or convenience, but out of a desire to maintain a connection to the land that they believe is theirs while also longing for compassion and peace.  

These encounters were very short, and complicated by cultural and linguistic gaps. However, the Israel Insight Fellowship provided me with something that I had been unable to develop in the United States: real, human connections to Israelis and Palestinians. 

Coming back to my Hillel, I hope to share these stories with my fellow students — developing Israel programming that brings the discussion of Israel and Palestine out of its usual silos. With this approach, I firmly believe that creative and effective solutions can be achieved. And with this, progression toward peace is possible.