Busy Bwog reporter Bari Weiss found herself in Hamilton Wednesday evening, listening to the stories of students who stepped outside their comfort zone this summer. Her account follows.

kjsdfTwo Jews, two Palestinians, one half-Jew half-Palestinian—sounds like the introduction to a bad joke.  But tonight in Hamilton 603, these were the identities (or, as they will be happy to remind you, just some of the identities) of the five women who presented to a smallish crowd about their experience this summer in the Balkans.  While the war raged in southern Lebanon, SGA President and Project Tolerance founder Eman Bataineh B’07, Yael Hammerman B/JTS ’07, Hannah Assadi C ’08, Shira Danan C ’07, and Tina Musa C ’09 were among twenty-three students (12 Jewish, 11 Palestinian) who traveled to the Balkans as part of a program run by Abraham’s Vision, an NGO aimed at creating a new generation of mutually respectful American Jewish, Palestinian, and Muslim leaders.  Participants were chosen from schools–like Columbia–that are often hotbeds of controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The plan?  By traveling to Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and engaging in comparative conflict analysis, the participants would be able to, in Assadi’s words, “de-exceptionalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  Traveling to a place where a similar conflict has occurred, in other words, may show the participants that the Middle East turmoil need not be eternal. 

The conversation tonight was at times hard to follow (and equally challenging to sum up). Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was Batanieh’s explanation of various models of such dialogue groups: while the encounter model focuses on mutual similarities and common humanity (‘hey, you’re actually not the terrorist I thought you were!’), participants said the Abraham’s Vision model accounted for, and even seemed to even accentuate differences.  By recognizing and confronting political realities, and approaching the notion of dialogue itself critically, the hope is that the experience will actually lead to further goals of changing the status quo.  The program insisted on, as one speaker put it, “not just going home and say ‘I met the other.’”

What was clear was that the trip had and continues to have, an incredibly profound effect on the participants.  As Musa commented this evening, “the trip ends, but it’s never actually over.”