In May 2007, Jimmy Carter went on a speaking tour and made a stop at the University of California, Irvine. During his talk, the former president made an offer to assist in funding a trip between Jewish and Muslim students to Israel and the Palestinian territories with the intention of bringing awareness to the plight of the Palestinians.
In August 2008 a group of students, primarily composed of Jewish students and students who are involved with the Middle Eastern Studies Student Initiative (MESSI) or the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, participated in a program to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Jimmy Carter did not subsidize the trip according to the students and departments involved, but Carter’s suggestion in 2007 definitely helped to inspire this trip. Now that students have returned to the United States they will be sharing their experiences and the perspectives they heard at a series of events sponsored by university departments throughout the year.
My outlook regarding this trip is neither optimistic nor reassured just because the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding endorsed this program and UC Irvine’s vice chancellor briefly met with students during the trip. After all, I am very familiar with the vice chancellor at my alma mater. He is the same vice chancellor who made a rather asinine remark that he would not seek to curtail hate speech against Jews because “one person’s hate speech is another’s education.”
Another concern is that students, who probably had good if not extremely misguided intentions, were only afforded the ability to see two parts of the Middle East — developed Israel and the underdeveloped Palestinian Authority. Certainly students, especially students who went into the trip knowing little about the conflict, will only have a prospering, developed nation to compare the Palestinian territories to. In order for a well-rounded, honest approach to understanding the Middle East, students should have seen how Jordanians and Egyptians live. Anyone who has visited the Middle East will recognize that there are distinct similarities of impoverishment, lack of sanitation, and infrastructure in villages.
Conversely, Israel is not much different than Western nations. Innovation, advancement, proper health, and infrastructure are obvious components of Israeli society.
During this trip words like “refugees” and “oppressed” likely came up in discussion about the situation of the Palestinians. I sincerely doubt that there will be a mention that the infant mortality rate in the Palestinian Authority is actually lower than in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and many other Islamic nations. Israel has continuously provided medical assistance to Palestinians in need, which has very likely made the infant mortality rate lower in the Palestinian Authority. I also cannot help but wonder if the fact that Palestinians cannot become citizens of any Islamic nation or that there are Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was discussed during this trip.
Furthermore, it is a concern that while the refugee status of the Palestinians is often up for discussion, there is little or no mention of the Jewish Middle Eastern refugees. Certainly, judging from what I have heard and seen about this trip, there wasn’t a mention of Middle Eastern Jewry even though these Jews make up more than half of Israel.