For college journalist Evan Wagner, a tour along the seam line separating Israel and the West Bank brought Israeli security concerns into focus in a way that following the situation from afar could not.
Recalling the view of the Mediterranean from a vantage point along the Green Line, Wagner said he was surprised by how close everything is.
The tour “made a lot of those issues clearer than they could ever be by looking at a map or watching it on CNN,” said Wagner, 20, a senior at American University in Washington and a managing editor of the campus newspaper, The Eagle.
Wagner is one of eight college newspaper editors who recently traveled to Israel as part of an intensive two-week seminar organized by the Anti-Defamation League.
The program, now in its 10th year, had special resonance this time around, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spurring heated debate — and tensions — on many American campuses.
As college students across the United States begin the new academic year, this select group of campus newspaper editors visited Israel in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of the conflict.
With stops in Poland, Bulgaria and Israel, the program was also designed to educate student journalists about the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish state in general.
Wagner said he hoped what he learned on the trip would help him provide context for the newspaper’s coverage of campus activism related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“A trip like this, for me, translates into being able to put together better-informed” and more perceptive content, he said.
While in Israel the group toured Jerusalem, northern Israel and the seam line separating Israel and the West Bank. They visited holy sites and museums, stayed on a kibbutz, were briefed by Foreign Ministry and defense officials and met with Israeli peers.
They heard from a diverse group of speakers, including Israeli legislators, Israeli Arab and Druse leaders, a representative from a regional settlement council in the West Bank, and Israeli, American and Palestinian members of the media.
Chatting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel on the last day of the seminar, the students said they were drawn to the program because of the opportunity it provided to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up close.
“I believe very strongly that to understand any country, any place, any conflict, you have to see it firsthand,” said Mariano Castillo, 22, a senior at Texas A&M University.
Unlike the other program participants, for whom this was a first trip to Israel, Castillo came here six months ago on a mission organized by the American Jewish Committee.
“If there’s one thing I learned when I came in December, it was that one trip is not enough to understand all the complexities of Israel and of the conflict,” he said. “Even though it’s only been six months since I’ve been here, so much has changed.”
For Castillo, one of the highlights of the week in Israel was a meeting with Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna shortly after he declared his candidacy for leadership of the Labor Party.
“It was really great to meet a leader of that caliber, someone who’s going to be a player in the next year or so and get his thoughts on where the country needs to go,” said Castillo, who will be writing this year for the campus newspaper, The Battalion, after serving as its editor in chief.
Johanna Hanink, a junior at the University of Michigan, cites a chance encounter with a group of Israeli soldiers while visiting Auschwitz in Poland as one of the strongest impressions from the trip.
“Seeing that they are our age, that most of them are kids just like us, really changed my perspective on how things work here,” said Hanink, 20, who is editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.
This year’s mission, from Aug. 5-Aug. 18, included college newspaper editors from American University, University of Michigan, Harvard University, University of California at Irvine, Oregon State University, Syracuse University, Wayne State University and Texas A&M University.
The main point of the program is to “expose people to a diversity of viewpoints,” said Ken Jacobson, assistant national director of the ADL.
While past groups spent some time in the territories, that was not possible this year because of the security situation, Jacobson said.
“We tried to find ways to compensate,” such as arranging a meeting with a Palestinian speaker, he said.
The ongoing violence in the region also affected the size of the study mission, which had fewer participants than in previous years.
While some of the students admitted that their families had expressed concern about their coming to Israel, personal safety was not a major for them.
“There are millions of people living here, who are managing with all the terrorism and conflict to live somewhat normal lives, or at least lives,” said David DeBartolo, 21, a senior at Harvard University.
“If they can do it, the least I can do to learn about the way they’re living is to come for a week and see it with my own eyes.”
DeBartolo and other student editors said their school papers’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict split into two categories: wire copy on actual news events and original reporting on how the dispute is playing out among campus interest groups.
The students described varying levels of campus activism at their schools surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the University of Michigan, “there are a lot of people who feel like they have a large personal investment in what’s happening here,” said Hanink. “So that has bred a lot of activism and tension on the campus,” which she said is addressed by the paper.
“Our editorial policy is unique in that in our unsigned editorials we never take a position on international affairs. But we view the role of those unsigned editorials to define the borders of acceptable debate on campus. We encourage both the Palestinian and Israeli activist groups to be vocal, to have a presence, but when one of those groups says something that we feel goes too far, we point that out,” she said.
Hanink said that if prior to the trip she might have hesitated over whether to run a particular opinion piece, “this trip has helped me define my own boundaries for what are the acceptable extremes.”
DeBartolo, who is editorial chair of The Harvard Crimson, described a “politically charged” atmosphere on campus at the end of last year that was fueled by distrust between Jewish and Arab student groups.
He said he hoped to be a better-informed editor as a result of the trip.
“These issues are immensely complicated,” he said. Having the chance to come and learn about the situation and talk to people involved on either side “really broadens and deepens the understanding that I’ll have of what’s going on here,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.