A Student Perspective: Israel, Birthright and the Syrian Civil War

Hearing about conflict in the Middle East is one thing. Cancelling your lunch plans because of a stabbing spree is another.

Culture /// News & Politics x

Hearing about conflict in the Middle East is one thing. Cancelling your lunch plans because of a stabbing spree is another.

What I Learned in Israel

Hearing about conflict in the Middle East is one thing. Cancelling your lunch plans because of a stabbing spree is another.

By Maya Merberg, SUNY Geneseo


Days before I left the country for Israel, I sat in my bedroom and listened to my friend excitedly relay all the adventures she had experienced when she did the same trip a year prior.

It was the beginning of January, so I was pumped to leave behind final exams and the holidays and escape to a place that would not be covered in snow. That said, I knew the trip would be eventful and educational—not quite a tropical beach getaway.

An Israeli flag near the West BankI didn’t have to pay for any travel expenses at all because I was going through Birthright, which is in part funded by the state of Israel itself. The organization pays for these trips because its funders want Jewish youth to learn about the culture and history of Israel. I had a lot to learn indeed.

I met the group of college-aged kids I was traveling with in New York City, from where we would leave on a direct flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. Before boarding, everyone was individually questioned by Israeli security agents. I approached a stern looking woman who put tags on my luggage as she asked me about my travel plans and personal history. In a thick Hebrew accent she asked, “What is the name of your rabbi?” I explained that I didn’t have a rabbi. Then she asked the name of my synagogue, which I didn’t attend, and where I learned Hebrew, which I didn’t do.

Honestly, though I have Jewish heritage, only one of my parents is Jewish and I was never very connected to the culture or religion. Part of why I wanted to go on the trip was to explore and learn more about the Jewish identity in the first place. (The security agent did not seem interested in conversing about my personal thought processes and identity concerns, and I began to suspect that the Israelis didn’t take what could be called a “loosey goosey” approach to national security.) She stared at me and asked a few more questions before leaving to retrieve a different but equally serious-looking agent. This one walked over to me and with furrowed eyebrows said, “Do you know anyone who is from a country near Israel, or whose heritage is from a country bordering Israel…maybe Lebanon or Syria?”

The airport interrogation was the first reminder that Israel is not a vacation destination, and security must be careful about who enters the country. Israel doesn’t exist for teenagers to visit and soak up culture and information before returning to a safe and cozy home where they can contemplate the Jewish experience from a distance. In fact, we spent a few days with a group of Israeli citizens between the ages of 18 and 22, whose lives were less than safe and cozy to say the least. We hung out with them, hiked in the Negev Desert, floated in the Dead Sea and ate falafel with them.

But while we wore whatever we wanted, they stayed in uniform the whole time—Israel has a mandatory draft for men and women, so everyone serves in the military right out of high school. While we could talk freely about everything we were doing at school, some of the soldiers were legally prohibited from discussing their duties because they worked for military intelligence. And when the ten days were over, I would go back to complaining about the weather during a three-minute walk to the dining hall, and the Israelis would return to defending their families, friends and values in service to their nation.

My group did a lot of walking and sightseeing as we traveled up and down the country. During one excursion we walked up Golan Heights, an overlook from where we could see several other countries. We gazed out into the horizon, and our guide pointed out a visible separation in the geography. “That’s Syria,” he said. “Beyond that line is a Syrian Civil War battleground. As of now Israel is not allowing Syrian refugees into the country.”

As if on cue the sound of gunfire drifted up from beyond the border.

Though many Syrians are facing violence in their own country and need somewhere else to go, Syria also poses a serious threat to Israel, which is in conflict with almost every nation surrounding it. Allowing foreigners past the borders is insanely risky. This is the kind of ethical dilemma average Israeli 20-year olds face every day at work. Before this, my idea of an ethical dilemma was deciding whether or not to lie to my bio lab group about being out of town for a weekend so I wouldn’t have to meet for a project.

My mind was already blown at how close all this violence seemed. If that wasn’t enough, it turned out that we had actually planned to go to the northern side of Golan Heights where we would have been able to see the border of Lebanon, but Israeli forces had fired missiles into their territory a day or two prior, calling for a heightened security situation. Before this, my idea of a heightened security situation was when I lied to my bio lab group about being out of town for a weekend, so I had to remain unseen around campus for a couple days.

Israeli soldiers

Being constantly close to violence and danger is a reality for people living in the Middle East, and the only way to deal with it is to grow accustomed and go on with life. My American cohorts and I got a taste of what it’s like to do everything adjacent to conflicts so much greater than your everyday life. At another point, we were scheduled to have lunch in the heart of Jerusalem, but several stabbings had just taken place there so we were forced to reroute.

Hearing about stabbings in a place you were just about to be can be shocking and scary, but later that night we would forget about it and party together in the lively and beautiful city of Tel Aviv. Such is life for Israelis. They don’t get to ignore current events regardless of how traumatizing they can be. Instead they confront them directly, and then enjoy all the wonderful features of their country knowing that they’re doing what they can to improve the parts that need it.

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