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Kenyon alum leads tours for Israelis and Palestinians

Kenyon alum leads tours for Israelis and Palestinians

by Julie France

Icebreaker activities are used for business retreats, new-student orientations and much more. But could they be used to break down the tension between a group of Israelis and Palestinians?

Tiyul-Rihla, a subsidized tour group program led by Israeli director and Kenyon graduate Dara Frank ’11, Palestinian director Ahmed Helou and co-director and co-founder Yovav Kalifon, begins its two- to three-day trips with games intended to reduce awkwardness. One common icebreaker is to have Israelis and Palestinians pair up and teach one another three to four words in Hebrew and Arabic.

To speak about their efforts, Frank and Helou will lead a video conversation today at 11:10 a.m. in Olin Auditorium.

Tiyul-Rihla trips take both Israelis and Palestinians to historical sites in Israel and Palestine areas in order for them to better understand each other’s history and foster dialogue in a non-political context. Frank believes history is the best way to work toward peace because it neither dismisses the conflict nor heightens it through politics.

“You know, you’ll have things like ‘Pottery for Peace’ where [Israelis and Palestinians] can get together in a friendly environment but then you come out of that and say, ‘Well there’s still a conflict,’ and a lot of the conflict arises from just misunderstanding in history,” Frank said. For Frank, her position at Tiyul-Rihla has allowed her to put her Kenyon education to the test.

“My job … is the perfect Kenyon job because I can add all these tidbits on tours that I learned as a political science major and IPHS [Integrated Program in Humane Studies] concentrator,” Frank said. “I joked to some of my professors before I graduated that I was going to solve the conflict with Israel and Palestine, not realizing what I would be doing now.”

Since the program started in June 2011, Tiyul-Rihla has led nine trips as well as a few half-day hikes and reunion tours. The groups go to historical sites in Israel as well as two areas of the West Bank: Area A, which is under full Palestinian Authority control, and Area B, under Palestinian civil control with Israeli-Palestinian security. Tiyul-Rihla provides set types of trips that tour specific historical places such as the “Jerusalem-Jaffa” trip. Yet perhaps one of the most important aspects of the trips is the conversation participants have in between historical sites.

“Once we went to the Temple Mount and we had to wait 45 minutes before going, and one Israeli just couldn’t take the wait and just left,” Frank said. “Afterwards, one Palestinian woman said, ‘Well, we have to do that all the time — go someplace and wait forever to go in or not be allowed in at all.’”

On her sabbatical last year, Professor of Religious Studies Miriam Dean-Otting was able to observe what Frank is doing firsthand by going on two Tiyul-Rihla trips, one in December 2013 and the other in March 2014.

“I remember walking behind [a settler, an Israeli who lives in the West Bank,] and she was walking with a Palestinian man and she would say, ‘Well, it’s not the way I think about it,’ and they kept talking with each other,” Dean-Otting said. “So conversation did not break down. It didn’t just shut down because they didn’t agree.”

It’s the knowledge born from these kinds of conversations and learning each other’s history with which Frank wants participants to leave the trip. “We don’t want people to come out all happy.,” Frank said. “We just want people to come out with a better understanding.” This understanding is rare for any Israeli or Palestinian to gain outside of programs such as Tiyul-Rihla.

“Palestinians and Israelis don’t have a chance to meet each other, just at checkpoints or in the jail or some wars — but as humans, as civilians, there is no chance,” Helou said.

For David Gurevich, an Israeli participant of two trips, he not only was able to meet Palestinians, but also see how some live as he did on his trip to Jericho and Bethlehem. “I was really surprised by the high quality of life there, with these very large houses that I would have to work very hard to get,” Gurevich said.

The homes of some Israelis and Palestinians aren’t the only things that differ and this sometimes leads to difficulties when Frank leads tours.

“We were at the beach and a lot of the Palestinians had never seen the beach before, but it was 2 p.m. and Shabbat started at 5, so I needed to make sure that the Israelis were back in time for Shabbat,” Frank said. “But the Palestinians wanted to stay longer, but Israelis weren’t happy about it and I couldn’t tell them that they wouldn’t be home in time to make their families dinner for Shabbat.”

Despite cultural and religious differences among the participants, the directors of Tiyul-Rihla hope that the trips have been a success in giving both Israelis and Palestinians insight into each other’s history and how the same geographical place can be important to both peoples.

Helou looks forward to the video conversation and hopes students will learn that both Israelis and Palestinians are working together for peace.

“Don’t let the media control your mind or control your thoughts,” Helou said. “Just, if you want to know the truth, come visit the land.”

Frank and Helou’s partnership may in itself be a testament to peace.

“Ahmed [Helou] and I don’t have the same views, but still we are able to work together,” Frank said. “And if we can do that, then certainly Kenyon students can.”


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