Bridging the Gap Could Provide Valuable Experience for Students

“If you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to — and not away from — the noise,” said former First Lady Michelle Obama in her 2015 Commencement address. “Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens.”

Being an activist means engaging in hard conversations. However, right now, several Oberlin students are protesting a Winter Term project — Bridging the Gap: Israel, Palestine, and the Politics of Division Here at Home — under the guise of social justice, ultimately discounting Obama’s words on genuine advocacy. It is time we remind ourselves that social progress can only be achieved by facing the noise, not fleeing it.

The Bridging the Gap Winter Term project, which is being planned in partnership with the national civil rights organization Western States Center, is providing Oberlin students with an opportunity to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for eight days in hopes of better understanding the situation.

“The program is intended to cultivate participants’ ability to listen, understand, be heard, and seek common ground solutions as we build movements towards our shared goals of democracy and social justice,” the program description read.

Two student organizations at Oberlin, Students for a Free Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, recently put out a joint petition condemning the Bridging the Gap Winter Term project.

“The genocide occurring in Palestine is ongoing, and to take a trip to Palestine under any circumstance other than working towards Palestinian liberation is grossly inappropriate and directly supports apartheid,” the petition read.

The Bridging the Gap program coordinators responded to the petition in a public statement, defending the purpose of the trip.

“Those who participate in this trip will directly engage Palestinian, Israeli, and East Jerusalemite activists, politicians, and community leaders, as well as Ethiopian Jewish Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Christian Palestinians, and members of migrant communities trying to find footing and safety in Israel,” the statement read.

It would be nearly impossible for Oberlin students to grasp the intricacies of the Israel-Palestine conflict and achieve social change without first immersing themselves in the two nations’ cultures. Oberlin’s motto is, “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” If Oberlin students really want to change the world, they need to learn about it first.

Protesters need to ask themselves what their goal is. Is it to simply remain angry about a perceived injustice or to create peace in the region? If they desire meaningful change, they need to stop boycotting. A boycott will not only be fruitless, it will stunt any potential progress.

We would never tell diplomats not to visit the countries for which they are trying to broker a peace agreement, so why are we trying to bar Oberlin students — perhaps our future leaders, ambassadors, and negotiators — from having this valuable experience?

The petition against Bridging the Gap argues that Oberlin students should not visit Palestine.

“Many Palestinians are barred from returning to Palestine because of Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies, so why should non-Palestinian Oberlin students have the right to take a school-sponsored trip?” the petition read.

However, in their response to the petition, the Bridging the Gap coordinators disagree that refusing to travel to Palestine is the solution.

“The Palestinian rights activists (including both Palestinians and Israelis) with whom we are engaged in Israel/Palestine are deeply concerned with the outsized influence that the United States wields in the region and welcome open-minded American visitors interested in hearing their perspectives, witnessing their struggles, and bringing those lessons home,” the statement read.

It is therefore hypocritical to imply that students who visit Israel and Palestine “support apartheid.” Does this mean that students should never visit a nation that has committed human rights abuses? Should we not study Russian culture in Moscow because of the government’s continued violations against Jehovah’s Witnesses or the LGBTQ+ community? Should people from other countries refuse to come here because our government forced Japanese Americans to live in internment camps during WWII? If so, we’d be living in an incredibly isolationist and divided world.

The brutal truth is that we live in an unjust world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation that hasn’t committed human rights abuses. We shouldn’t prohibit individuals from traveling to countries that are accused of committing injustices. Rather, we need to travel to these countries to learn more about the people, the culture, and their history so that we can hopefully reverse the injustices and enact change.

As Obama said in her commencement speech, “If you want to change [people’s] minds, if you want to work with them to move this country forward, you can’t just shut them out.”

If Oberlin students are truly intent on changing the world, they should adhere to Obama’s inspirational words and start running toward the noise.