A Reflection on my Trip to the Middle East

Story and photos by Rachel Burt

I’ve been back from my travels for a few weeks now, but reality still hasn’t fully set in. My trip to Israel was definitely unforgettable, and all the things I did and saw there don’t seem real when I look back on them. From visiting the large, graffiti-covered wall separating Israelis and Palestinians to hearing differing viewpoints and inspiring stories, this small country will hold a special place in my heart from now on. Not only did I have the opportunity to explore various parts of Israel itself, I also stepped into Jordan and Palestinian territories and expanded my worldview a little bit more. I’ll forever be grateful to Associate Dean and Professor Joel Kaplan and the Jerusalem Press Club for giving me this incredible opportunity to travel with our international reporting class. Though we were only gone for 10 days, we packed so many activities into those days that each one of them felt rewarding in its own way.

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Day 1: For our first full day in Israel, we were taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by the wonderful Daniella Gefen, the most knowledgeable tour guide I’ve ever had. Daniella has been guiding people through Israel since her army service in 2000 and is absolutely full of interesting information about basically anything. For our first taste of Israeli nightlife, we went with Tal Bouhnik, the man behind the amazing schedule of events for our trip, of the Jerusalem Press Club to the Mahane Yehuda market. On the way home from dinner at the market, which was obviously delicious, my friends and I heard some music playing in the distance, so we broke away from the group heading back to our hotel and decided to check it out. What we discovered was a small bar with a band called Buckets n Joints playing their hearts out for a growing crowd. This day and night were clear indicators that the trip was going to continue to surprise and excite, and it didn’t let us down in the slightest.

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Day 2: On the second day of our Israel tour we were taken to an Ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem to learn about the relations between the Orthodox community in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. Later we drove to the YadVashem Holocaust History Museum for a guided tour. Obviously, the content of this tour was very heavy and the feeling was somber for a while, but at the end our guide said seeing us there, remembering the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust, gave her hope that future generations won’t forget what happened — and won’t allow something like that to happen again. After the tour the class was given a half reporting day to go out and work or first take a tour of the CNN studios and meet with Oren Lieberman, a Newhouse grad and Jerusalem correspondent for CNN. Wanting to experience as much as I could during these 10 days, I chose to go to CNN. I’m glad I did because now I have a new contact that could be useful in the future. The rest of the night was for free time and dinner at our leisure.

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Day 3: The third day was full of driving around and touring various places, starting with Ramallah — a Palestinian city in the central West Bank located north of Jerusalem. Currently, Ramallah serves as the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority. There we met with Dr. Ziad Darwish, director of the committee for interaction with the Israeli society, and other Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives. Later we drove to the first planned Palestinian city of Rawabi and had lunch after meeting with the man behind the whole operation, developer Bashar Masri. Rawabi was beautiful and very clean, but for all the stores and restaurants moving into the area, it didn’t seem like many actual people were filling the apartments of the residential buildings. When we were driving away from the area, my friends and I joked the city wasn’t real, and the people we had met there were actors and that was the real reason it seemed so empty.

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Day 4: The fourth day was the one I had been waiting for: touring Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, and seeing the wall for myself. I have a deep love for street art, and this place did not disappoint. Beyond the beautiful works of art that lined the wall, it was really interesting to hear from Palestinians about the divide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Israel and Palestine will become undivided anytime soon, so the wall will remain. Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel was also a highlight of the day for me because it combined art and political commentary beautifully. The work of the mysterious artist will continue to inspire me after seeing some of his work with my own eyes. Later we drove to Roots, a local meeting place for both Palestinians and Israeli settlers to come together, share ideas, and work together toward peace. In the evening, we were treated to a dinner with representatives of the foreign press at the Jerusalem Press Club’s Touro Restaurant, where I made some new friends.

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Day 5: On the fifth day of our tour of Israel, we left our hotel in Jerusalem and drove to the northern region of the country and visited the ”Island of Peace” at Naharaim to talk about the peace between Israel and Jordan. Naharayim means ‘two rivers’ in Hebrew, so Naharaim gets its name due to its location between the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers. To be honest, I was surprised to see how small the Jordan River actually was after hearing so much about it. Later we had lunch at Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’Golan before driving to Mount Bental, which overlooks Syria and features a great view of the Golan Heights — except when it’s foggy like when we were there. With the fog, everything was gloomy and a little creepy, which made for some pretty interesting photos. After that we drove to Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights. The Druze are a small Middle Eastern religious sect that don’t permit conversion either away from or to their religion, and marriage outside of the Druze faith is rare and strongly discouraged. We ate dinner at a home in the village, and the food just kept coming no matter how full we thought we were. Everything, of course, was delicious. From here we drove to Metula to spend the night.

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Day 6: In the morning we broke into small groups to take jeep tours around the Lebanese border with locals from the Metula area, with a stop along the way to hear about the ongoing conflicts with Hezbollah. After we were done taking in the sights and learning about Israel and Lebanon, we started the drive towards Tel Aviv. When we arrived, we had some time to relax and get ready for the special Shabbat dinner we had been invited to at the home of a lovely Israeli family, catered by a woman named Anat. I was amazed these people would open their home to us and feed us such a wonderful meal since we were a large bunch of strangers, but this was before I understood Israeli hospitality. Anat was an incredibly sweet woman and made an insane amount of food for all of us because it’s what she does; she feeds people. The food, wine and conversation were all great, and this is a night I’ll remember for a long time.

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Day 7: After checking out of the hotel we had some free time to relax and grab lunch before heading to the Bedouin city of Tel Sheva, one of the seven Bedouin cities in the Negev. Bedouins are nomadic peoples of the Middle Eastern deserts. In Tel Sheva we met with Suheila abu Rkeek, who shared her inspiring story of learning how to drive, sending her daughter to school, and maintaining a business despite the wishes of a controlling husband. After she told us of her courage we were treated to a meal in the city and had some time to check out a collection of handmade Bedouin skincare and beauty products before leaving for the Dead Sea to spend the night. I didn’t have my wallet when we saw the products, but my friend gave me one of the bars of camel’s milk soap she had bought when she saw how much I liked them and how I was disappointed I couldn’t buy one. Since this friend is obsessed with coffee, I repaid my debt to her by treating her to a cup.

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Day 8: Because it had been raining in the area, the sunrise hike that had been scheduled for this morning was cancelled due to unsafe conditions. We opted for a sunrise float in the Dead Sea, and I can honestly say I have no regrets. For a few hours in the morning, I felt at peace as I floated around and checked out the salt crystals that had formed on the seafloor. We were on the wrong part of the beach to get mud and cover ourselves in it, so I bought myself a pack to use at a later date along with a packet of Dead Sea salt and some face masks. After the relaxation, we were on our way to the “Black Arrow” lookout over the Gaza Strip, where Daniella filled us in on the conflicts of the area, and we watched as smoke curled up into the sky in the distance. From there we went to Sderot where we had lunch before meeting up with Sharon Shelly to hear about what it is like to live in the area and have rockets become a daily part of your life. It’s crazy to me that we are so sheltered where we live in New York, while others have to deal with rockets being launched at their homes; I don’t think I’m strong enough to live like that. After that it was back to Tel Aviv to wander and relax until the morning.

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Day 9: On the ninth day of our trip we drove from our hotel in Tel Aviv to the “Meet in Place” in the city to meet with young Israeli journalists from different media organizations as well as Lt. Col. Yonatan Conricus, the IDF spokesperson for the foreign press. After hearing them speak and asking our questions, we drove back to the hotel to rest after a long day of meetings before heading over to ‘Israel Hayom’ (Israel Today) newspaper to meet with Erez Lin, international correspondent of Israel Today and have a tour of the newspaper. The newspaper was first published in 2007 and has the largest daily circulation in the country. After the tour we all went to a restaurant in Tel Aviv for the closing dinner and then Tal took us for drinks at an open air bar down the street.

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Day 10: On our last day in Israel we drove to Start Up Nation Central, an independent nonprofit that builds bridges for Israeli innovation, for a meeting to discuss the Israeli ecosystem. After that we were given the rest of the day to go out and report, which was great because I hadn’t had a chance to work on my story before this point. For my story about the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, my unofficial story partner and I traveled to the city of Hadera to interview sources until the evening feedback session for our program. After giving feedback to make future trips even better, my friends and I went out for one more dinner before leaving the country we had grown to love. After that, we drove to Ben Gurion Airport and prepared for the long journey home — and trust me, it was indeed a long journey back.