Lena Welch ‘20
New Media Editor
Over winter break, forty-four UVA Law students and one UVA Batten School of Policy student participated in the iTrek trip to Israel. The seven-and-a-half-day trip traversed the country, with the group traveling from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, up to the Golan Heights and Syrian border, and concluding in Tel Aviv. The trip allowed the students to explore the interesting legal questions presented by a complicated place, but they also learned about its historical and religious roots and the vibrant cultures that exist today.
In addition to the tour educator who stayed with the group for the entire trip, the students heard from such speakers as a former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, a lawyer who focuses on bringing lawsuits on behalf of terror victims, a retired colonel and expert in geopolitics, and a former policy advisor to President Shimon Peres. Additionally, the group heard from a couple of journalists tasked with decoding the complexities of Israel.
The first full day in the country struck a serious tone as the group toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Old City of Jerusalem. For those who have been to a different Holocaust museum or even for those who have been to the Yad Vashem, it provided a powerful experience as it attempts to give each victim a memorial and a name. The Old City was another powerful experience as the students toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the location of the burial of Jesus Christ and as such a holy place for Christians—and the Western Wall, the most religious site for the Jewish people.
"Having the first stops of the first full day of the trip be at Israel's National Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jerusalem's Old City provided historical context to the trip,” Julian Kritz ’20, one of the four student leaders, said. “It showed us the immediate necessity of the modern state, born out of the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the long-term Jewish connection to the country, born out of independent sovereignty of the ancient Jewish kingdoms."
The following day, the students traveled to Bethlehem, which is located in the West Bank. The group spent the morning learning about the occupation with the help of a local Palestinian guide. The separation or security barrier, a refugee camp, and even a trip to the Banksy Museum at the Walled Off Hotel introduced them to different perspectives. The group then made its way up to Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity, the location where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born. The church represents another interesting illustration of compromise, as it features locations dedicated to the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic churches.
On Sunday, the students visited the Supreme Court and met with Justice Asher Grunis LLM ’72. Justice Grunis provided an expert perspective into the legal system of Israel, including the interesting issues that face a nation without a written constitution, the function of the basic laws, and the limited standing requirements. The students also learned about the mechanics of the court system in Israel.
After a dip in the Dead Sea, the group toured Masada before traveling north to the Golan Heights. After a briefing of the geopolitical problems dominating the region by expert Miri Eisin, the students took an ATV tour by the Syrian border. The group visited Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee before eating at a Druze restaurant, where they learned about the Druze people, a religious minority in Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
The group closed out its trip in Tel Aviv. After learning about the novel ways in which Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Shurat HaDin fight on behalf of terror victims, the students traveled to the newly remodeled Peres Center for Peace and Innovation to learn about the late Israeli statesman as well as the impressive future that awaits the start-up nation.
"The goal of the trip, which we hope succeeded, was to show participants a holistic picture of the country,” Kritz said. “We met with Palestinians and Israelis and traveled the entirety of the country. We hope that participants came away with an appreciation for the complexities of Israel and a desire to keep learning more. I know I, as a leader of the trip, left having more questions than answers."
“I had heard great things about iTrek, so I had high expectations, and the trip was even better than I thought it would be,” Tyler Fredricks ’19 said. “All of the leaders were incredibly knowledgeable about Israel and created an engaging, fun, and open environment where we could ask questions and learn more about the country.”
Throughout the trip, the group engaged in processing sessions to discuss and think critically about the narratives they had been presented or the challenging topics they were forced to confront. But the students were left with questions about Israel.
“I think what really stuck with me from the trip was that ‘one’ Israel doesn’t exist,” Cosi Piehler LLM ’19 said. “I came there pretty uninformed and with a somewhat blurry image in mind. Throughout the trip, I realized that Israel cannot be described in one picture or image, but I got a new image that added to the puzzle every day . . . . And I think the other thing that was really striking to me was how much reality differs from what we see in the media and what international law for example dictates. People kind of create their own reality there, which you can only understand if you’ve been there.”
In addition to the educational, religious, and historical elements of the trip, the iTrek included meals that highlighted the mixture of cultures in Israel. Indeed, the main social aspect of the trip surrounded the dining table, as participants connected with one another as well as the three Israeli law students who accompanied the UVA group.
“From a walking food tour in Tel Aviv, to an introspective processing session after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, to visiting Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem in the West Bank, to driving ATVs through the mountains of the Golan Heights, iTrek did a great job at showing Israel’s diversity, exploring the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and building a personal connection to the country,” Fredricks said.