Escorted by a very special tour guide, 10 Princeton University undergraduates and one graduate student spent eight days in Israel for a firsthand exploration at the country's most critical foreign and domestic issues.
Their leader was Daniel Kurtzer, who has been the United States ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. Their Dec. 18-26 trip was sponsored by the university's Center for Jewish Life, the Hillel chapter on the Princeton campus.
Kurtzer is currently the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The trip was open to anyone who wanted to participate; only two of the travelers were not Jewish. There was a $2,500 fee involved, but some of the students received full or partial scholarships.
"We covered eight or nine of the issues on Israel's front page today," Kurtzer told NJ Jewish News in a Jan. 30 telephone interview. "We had briefings on religious pluralism, on Israel's democracy and the challenges of not having a constitution, on the haredi relations with non-religious Jews, and on Israel's security challenges."
From a military base on Israel's Lebanese border to a meeting with Palestinian officials in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the students and their teacher had a crash course whose subjects ranged from Iran's nuclear potential to tensions between theharedim — Israel's ultra-Orthodox — and secular Israelis, to the possibility of making peace with the Palestinians.
Meeting in Ramallah, the group held two meetings — one with the Negotiating Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization and one with Nabil Amir, a former foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, who is now in their legislature.
The meetings, said Kurtzer, "went very well. The people from the Negotiating Affairs Department were obviously advocates for their side, and the former foreign minister explained that both sides have to do more for peace."
Princeton sophomore Jake Jackson said that taking part in the meetings in Ramallah was "a pretty unreal experience. We were open to hearing that Israel perhaps wasn't into upholding some of its bargains, but this was more polarizing than we expected."
Jackson added that Amir "was fantastic. He was very moderate and a little worn out. It did not seem like he believed a two-state solution would come to fruition, but he was willing to work toward it."
"To me the trip to Ramallah was fascinating," said Marni Blitz, the CJL assistant director, who went along as the representative of the center's staff.
"It was one example of where the students were respectful, even though they didn't agree a lot with what the speakers were saying."
And while their meeting was in Ramallah it was held at a five-star hotel, so, said Blitz, "we didn't get a chance to really see the neighborhoods or the Palestinians on the ground. It was not a true sense of what is going on in the West Bank."
At a base in the hills along Israel's northern border, affording a view into Lebanon, a retired brigadier general tied Israeli concerns about possible threats from the Hizbullah-influenced Lebanese government together with the dangers posed by Syria and Iran's support for Hizbullah.
In a separate briefing, a minister of Israel's strategic affairs spelled out Israel's mounting worry about the Iranian threat. He told the visitors that "the Israeli government is nervous that the world is not paying attention. Even though Iran poses a threat to a lot of places, Israel is on the top of Iran's list…,"said Kurtzer.
As they turned to domestic concerns, the Princetonians met with a social activist from the Tel Aviv tent movement — demonstrators who have been protesting the escalating cost of living and the deterioration of public health and education services — and visited a agriculture expert in the Negev to discuss water conservation and desert cultivation.
But the most controversial issues the group examined were those surrounding tensions between religious and secular Jews after widely publicized incidents that included the reported hareditormenting of an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox schoolgirl they accused of dressing in a provocative manner.
"We met with two women — one Orthodox and one Reform — who are in the movement to push back against haredi pressure," said the ambassador. Such activism, he said, "has galvanized cooperation between the Orthodox and the Reform."
"The women were very high energy," observed Jackson. "They are coming at it from very different angles — the secular and the very religious — but they were able to come at it in a very cool way when they talked about how perhaps the system isn't working as well as it should be.
"I am optimistic they will be able to work it out."
Given all the controversies they focused on, the students had "no monolithic view of things," said Kurtzer. "Seven or eight of them had been to Israel before, but almost none of them had been exposed to this range or depth of issues.
"There was so much to absorb in eight days. We did not fight about things, but there were a lot of heavy discussions. It was very intensive."