Near and Far: My Year Studying in Israel

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Kathleen Dermer (left) with fellow Peace & Conflict Management student Nora Kopping.

By Kathleen Dermer

I had never been to Israel before I arrived here in October. Honestly, I didn’t really know much about the country and it has never been a large part of my studies before now. In the U.S, I studied world religions and worked with interfaith organizations and civil rights advocacy in my home state of Minnesota, and so pursuing a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Management at the University of Haifa seemed to be a logical next step. With my interest in religion, not to mention the fact that Israel and the Palestinian Territories has been a hot topic over the years, the University of Haifa seemed like an exciting place to spend a year.

A little bit about the Peace and Conflict Management program at the University of Haifa: We are 34 students from over ten countries, including five locals. We study mainly international conflict with a focus on political science and theory. While being academic and classroom-based, the program also gives us the opportunity to travel around the region, to meet with mayors, NGO’s, military officers, and other government officials to gain a broader and more real perspective of the complexity of the conflict. It also gives us the unique opportunity to ask questions and analyze for ourselves. While many of my peers have hopes of becoming involved in diplomacy, others aim toward careers in journalism, NGOs and advocacy.  While we are all very different, I find that the strength of our group lies in our diversity. While at times it causes conflict and tension, it is truly a profound event when we can learn to respect a belief that may be radically different from our own and allow our peers to enrich our understanding and experience.

In the past few months I have had the great pleasure of working with the Freddie Krivine Foundation, which provides co-existence tennis programming for Arab and Jewish youth throughout Israel. Watching these kids overcome differences and share in the joy and fun of tennis has been truly inspiring. It has been a privilege to witness some of the great work that is happening on the grassroots level, and incredibly heartening to see that such efforts are making a difference.

One of the great benefits of studying abroad is that you have the opportunity to get an up-close and personal experience with new people, new culture, and a different way of life. At the same time, by being far away from home, it’s inevitable to gain a new perspective on where you’re from and the world around you. This specific position has helped me to learn two valuable lessons here so far. First, the conflict here, as with every conflict, large-scale or small-scale, is complicated. The more I learn, the harder it becomes to distinguish right from wrong, or even truth from distortion. More and more, I believe that every story and every voice must be heard and given validation to create the most comprehensive understanding of this conflict, its history, and possibilities for reconciliation.  Having the opportunity to hear these stories from so many different people and different perspectives has been the most valuable part of my time here so far. Secondly, I have become more and more aware of the conflicts in my own country, my own state, and even my own town.  While the situation here might get more media attention than others it is not necessarily unique as a conflict, and in the end human nature is human nature. I look forward to going back home and, using what I have learned here, working to address the conflicts that are such a part of my home life and local history.

It is difficult to remember what I expected before coming to Israel and I’m not sure if I really had many expectations. I’m sure I have been surprised in many ways and can only compare what I’m experiencing here to what I know of from my life, mainly in Minnesota. All in all, I find comfort in being in another nation of immigrants and very much understand the pride that comes from such a diverse and rich area, not to mention the struggle and hard work that is so much a part of a nation’s history. At the same time, the unity that many of these immigrants share in the traditions of Judaism has been extremely interesting to witness. It is a beautiful reminder that certain things can overcome many differences to bind us as humans. Furthermore, I find acts of faith and religion to be deeply meaningful to me because of their intimacy and ability to transcend.  I have been very moved by witnessing powerful moments of peace and beauty in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; these moments are what give me hope for a peaceful future in this region.

I still have a few months left in the country but there are some things I know I will take away from this experience. One, is the importance of compassion and understanding, and how they can be incredibly difficult to impart within a conflict. The second, is a respect for the perseverance of humans who continue to impress me by what they have, and what they are willing and able to endure. Lastly, I will remember the falafel; the enticing smell coming from the small roadside shop and the delicious tahina drizzled on top. I’m gonna miss that.

Post originally published in ESRA magazine.

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