Beyond a Textbook: My Summer Program in Israel | St. Lawrence University

Beyond a Textbook: My Summer Program in Israel

Michael Paulino

I was never much of a rule breaker, but violating international law might’ve had to be an exception. In front of me was a large, 10-foot-tall sign prohibiting the entrance into Area A fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. It was a sign I had seen first on the PowerPoint slides in my 9th grade history class, throughout my Israeli-Palestinian Conflict First-Year Seminar, and in the coursework that would define my passion for the Middle East. I had seen it printed across the front of a worksheet or textbook passage. And yet, over 5,500 miles away from my Middle Eastern politics textbook, I was now looking at the same sign in person.

There’s a certain power that comes from being able to take the imagery that comes from your textbook and experience it in real life. I was just days into my two-week summer abroad program in Israel during the summer of 2018, and no level of scholarship or lecture could have possibly prepared me for what I saw from the moment I stepped off the plane. I left from JFK Airport in New York City believing that I was as knowledgeable about the region as an undergraduate could be, that the narratives of my Palestinian history teacher and my Israeli St. Lawrence advisor were enough.

I can tell you now that it was not. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has a complexity that derives from two very distinct narratives—to even begin to explain the conflict would contradict the point I am trying to convey. It wasn’t until I experienced being held in a checkpoint for three hours, or eating a Shabbat dinner, or visiting the Wailing Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque, that I could even begin to formulate my own ideas on what I was witnessing. I was able to see for myself why the religious structures were so difficult to divide, to talk to activists and politicians on both sides of the conflict, and to hear them speak about what life is like.

So, while I stood at that border, I thought back to the hard work that got me there. The late nights researching case studies and policy briefs, and the conversations outside the classroom with my advisor that would last for hours as I tried to wrap my head around it all.

I took the opportunity SLU had presented to me. No longer did I have to learn from a textbook, or my high school teacher, or a college professor. No longer was I restricted by the walls of a St. Lawrence classroom. There I was, 5,500 miles away, living and learning beyond the pages of a textbook.