By Gerhard Ottehenning
February 2, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The six weeks between the Fall and Spring semester confronts SAIS students with the mildly stressful task of sifting through the myriad of opportunities the school has to offer. Students interested in grappling with some of the world’s most intractable issues embarked on a trip to Israel.
Enterprising students at SAIS partnered with itrek, a non-profit organization established in 2012 that connects graduate students with business leaders, politicians, and policy makers in Israel. Jon Pearl, a second year Middle Eastern Studies concentrator, in conjunction with three other SAIS students, worked with itrek to provide students a fresh perspective on this turbulent region of the world. “We wanted to introduce people to the difficult, multifaceted nature of the country and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” explained Pearl. Knowing that many students would come with drastically different levels of knowledge and opinions, Pearl sought to ensure they “weren’t trying to persuade anyone towards any specific position. In fact, we hope people left with more questions than they came with.”
Whether it was on the shores of the Mediterranean or in the streets of East Jerusalem, SAIS students had the opportunity to engage with former politicians, activists, and civic leaders who experience Israel’s complexity first hand. Kayla Marra, a second year Latin American Studies concentrator said, “My absolute favorite [speakers] were Stephanie Saldana and Marcie Lenk— two of the three creators behind Hakimah, a group that uses the female identity to understand and overcome religious and ethnic divides.” When asked how her perspective of Israel and Palestine changed over the course of the trip, Marra remarked, “The present gridlock is not due to a lack of imaginative thinking or policy expertise. Hundreds of plans have been crafted over the years from top minds…as a student of policy it really made me question the limits of expertise and the role of an outsider.”
SAISers who kept a close eye on the bulletin board outside the library might have noticed that this year’s international staff ride, an annual tradition sponsored by the Strategic Studies program, will also be held in Israel. Other than occurring over different seasons, with the international staff ride being held over spring break, the objectives of each trip differ in important ways. “My understanding of staff rides,” said Pearl, “is that they focus on the intricacies of military campaigns. We wanted to focus on offering a thousand-foot view of both Israel and Palestine while offering opportunities to interact with members of the communities they so often hear about in the news.”