This first appeared in The Havok Journal on December 4, 2016.
Every summer for the last three years, it has been my pleasure to accompany a group of amazing young undergraduates from some of the nation’s top schools on a two-week educational experience to Israel and the West Bank. Now in its fourth year, the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative (PDLI) brings together a wide range of amazing students—the PDLI Fellows—from schools like Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, the Naval Academy, and the United States Military Academy at West Point and allows them to experience one of the most complicated regions of the world in a way few other programs can.
PDLI is a truly transformative experience. As someone who has been involved and interested in the PDLI concept since its beginning, I find it invigorating and refreshing to see opinions and attitudes about the region change over the course of each PDLI trip. By being able to see, hear, and feel the complexities of the region instead of just reading about them in a book or seeing something online, PDLI participants gain a perspective that leaves them better informed and at the same time more curious about the deep-rooted issues that they may one day have a hand in addressing.
From start to finish PDLI is entirely student-organized and student-led. However, the student organizers have been gracious enough to allow two faculty advisors from West Point along every year as well. One, my colleague Dr. Ruth Beitler, is a true regional expert with deep experience in the history, languages, religions, and cultures of the area. I, a career Army officer, attend the trip as a leadership mentor and a security expert.
Motivations for attending PDLI vary. Some feel a deep personal attachment to values that are at stake in the region and want to see the situation for themselves. Others are from countries hostile to Israel and feel that they would never otherwise have an opportunity to see the country for themselves. Many are deeply interested in the plight of Palestinians and want to hear directly from them and Arab-Israelis.
Some, like me, are very interested in promoting civil-military relations and establishing international bonds of trust and friendship. Still, others hope to soon be in positions of leadership and see this as an opportunity to burnish relevant skills while learning about an incredibly intriguing part of the world. In my opinion, all of those motivations are equally valid, as long as everyone approaches the trip with an open mind.
Although I served a six-month peacekeeping tour along the Egypt-Israeli border early in my career and served seven combat tours in the Greater Middle East, my primary interest in PDLI is not in regional security but in the area of civil-military engagement, leadership development, and the promotion of cross-cultural empathy. While attending graduate school at Yale prior to my current assignment as an instructor at West Point, I came to realize how disconnected the military is from its fellow citizens, and vice-versa. This disjointed relationship is even more apparent when dealing with issues that span languages, religions, and cultures. PDLI doesn’t just recognize this as an issue, it does something about it.
Not only does PDLI build bridges between people of different cultures, nationalities, and belief systems, it also helps bridge the civil-military divide in the US at home and abroad. PDLI attendees come from across the globe, in the past including Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Columbia, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, and of course, from all over the United States. Some Fellows are observant Jews. Some are practicing Muslims. Most, like me, are neither. All come away from PDLI with a better knowledge of, and empathy for, each other and the people they encounter during the PDLI experience.
Many of the PDLI Fellows will eventually become leaders in their professions and their countries, so I see PDLI as a good way for young people in the military, as well as those who will serve in other ways, to get to know each other and build bonds that last. The PDLI Fellowship doesn’t end when people return home from Israel; robust social media engagement, campus visits, and an annual Reunion held at West Point help people stay informed, engaged, and connected with each other and the issues they explored during the summer trip.
Not only do PDLI participants get to know each other during their two-week experience to Israel and the Palestinian territories, they also get to know the region and the people within it. Those few participants who may have envisioned PDLI as a vacation quickly found out that this was not the case. Pre-trip prep sessions at West Point and Yale and a series of pre-departure overview briefs by prominent U.S., Palestinian, and Israeli politicians in New York are followed by intense days of sightseeing, panel discussions, and academic exchanges. During the trip, evening processing sessions help participants share their perspectives and contextualize what they saw, heard, and felt during that day’s activities.
Being on the ground in Israel and the West Bank makes the situation far more “real” than it could ever have been in a classroom. As an example from this past year’s PDLI experience, from an overlook in the Golan Heights, the Fellows saw the smoke and heard the distant gunfire associated with the chaos in Syria. Later in that trip, PDLI Fellows gained an appreciation for the Palestinian perspective by seeing, and touching, the “separation barrier” in Bethlehem.
And still, later, the Fellows traveled to the town of Sderot in southern Israel and learned what it was like to live under constant threat from rockets and tunnels originating in the Gaza Strip. And of course, Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are each something that has to be personally experienced to be understood. Even side trips to the Dead Sea, a rafting trip on the Jordan River, a Jeep ride in the Golan, and tourist excursions in the Old City each had an educational purpose.
The news brings us near-daily reminders about the importance of outreach efforts like PDLI and the seriousness of the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Rocket attacks, suicide bombings, human rights issues, extrajudicial killings, “price tag” reprisals, and assaults on tourists and bystanders get headlines all over the world. While we have extensive security measures in place to ensure the safety of our PDLI Fellows, the element of danger makes the trip more “real” and helps participants pay closer attention to the world around them and to the words of our guides and guest speakers. It also helps personalize the situation on the ground in a way that would otherwise be absent.
The “Stabbing Intifada” in particular was made personal to me in an incident that occurred just a few months before the PDLI trip in 2016 when a West Point graduate and Army veteran named Taylor Force was stabbed to death in Jaffa on an unrelated trip sponsored by his graduate school program at Vanderbilt. He was simply a tourist, minding his own business and trying to understand the situation in the region, in an area where he was allowed to be doing just that. And then, someone with hate in his heart murdered him for it. This event and others like it on both sides of the ideological divide underscore the necessity of the “educational” aspect of PDLI, and the need for strong, effective, and empathetic leaders to develop solutions to complex problems in the future.