08/01/2012 08:23 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Why Jewish Students Should Travel To The West Bank

For Brian Rizowy, a 28-year-old native New Yorker, support for Israel while growing up was a given. Raised in what he referred to as a "conservadox" home, Rizowy attended Jewish day school, remained active in the Hebrew Youth Movement and United Synagogue Youth.

"I've always been an advocate for Israel," Rizowy said. "My Dad lived in Israel at age 17 in 1967 and travel to Israel was very common in my family from an early age."

Expectedly enough, when Rizoway and a group of students toured West Bank cities of Hebron and Bethlehem, his encounter with the other side of the Zionist narrative took him by surprise.

"In the American Jewish community there is a notion that Israel is infallible and Jews poking holes in that theory are not going to be welcomed with open arms," Rizowy said. "I very much support Israel, but in my support of Israel, I can be critical."

In a tour led by an American Jew and a Palestinian from the West Bank, students were taken through security checkpoints and into settlements of the City of Hebron and the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The tour attempts to introduce participants to the "other side" of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Check out views from the West Bank tour...

View From The West Bank

Upon entry into the refugee camp, the tour guide directed students' attention to the graffiti painted on the 26-foot high concrete wall separating the city from the rest of Israel. The tour guide referred to the portraits of the men as "freedom fighters," though for many others in the group, including Rizowy, such a term was more synonymous with terrorist.

"I was very nervous, very anxious, always looking over my shoulder," Rizowy said. "As an American Jew, I've been, I almost want to say, conditioned to be afraid of the West Bank."

Amy Cohen, age 25, joined the tour to broaden her own understanding of the conflict and more importantly, to relay the information back to her fellow Jewish community members.

"I feel personally responsible," Cohen said. "I often have people asking me about the situation here and I want to be able to give accurate, thoughtful and unbiased answers. Most American Jews don't have the opportunity to have the experiences I have had, so as someone with the opportunity, I feel I should take advantage and share what I see and learn."

Like Rizowy, Cohen is a student at Haifa University and was one of several students on the tour studying peace and conflict resolution as part of a Masters program. Originally from Brookline, Mass., home to the largest Jewish population in the greater Boston area, Cohen said her upbringing maintained a consistent support for Israel.

"We choose Coke because Pepsi boycotted Israel; I was sent to a Zionist camp; they sent me to religious school from the time I was 5 onwards," Cohen said. "When you are in all of these Jewish environments, it is a very Zionist, pro-Israel environment."

It seemed that for the participants as well for Palestinians living in the West Bank that hosted them, this was a story-telling tour; stories of heritage and stories of rights. The stories told, and the stories that will be told.

As students sat down for tea at a Palestinian refugee's home, he asked the group what Americans think of Palestinians. Rizowy offered a response, which resonated with most students in the room.

"There's a lot of mixed feelings about, not who's right and not who has suffered more, because we've all suffered tremendously, but there's a lot of mixed feelings about who to trust, what to trust," Rizowy said. "I can't neglect my history, which has predominantly been defending the other side."

On top of his Zionist upbringing, Rizowy was referring to his own experience of loss.

In 2001, as part of the Alexander Muss High School Program, Rizowy spent five months living and learning in Israel. His roommate and close friend, Michael Levin, an American Jew famously known for inspiring Israel's Lone Soldier Center, would later join the Israeli Defense Force and die while fighting in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, after making Aliyah.

"It was traumatic," Rizowy said. "It was incredibly painful to lose a friend and a friend of Israel."

Cohen also grew up in an environment surrounded by Israelis. At a young age, Cohen's family hired an Israeli nanny to take care of her, and she attended Camp Young Judaea, which employs many Israeli counselors. She remembered feeling empowered by the beautiful Israeli woman who worked as the camp's riflery and archery instructor and previously served as an IDF shooting instructor.

Indeed, internal conflict was simmering under the surface that afternoon, including in one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank, Hebron.

Located south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and is considered to be one of the most destitute due, in part, to its lack of water. The city is home to an estimated 163,000 Palestinians and 500 Israeli Jewish settlers, along with the more than 1,000 IDF soldiers patrolling the area.

Shuhada Street, Hebron's central road, has been closed to Palestinian motorists and pedestrians since February 1994, when a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims at prayer. To prevent any future attacks of revenge, the IDF barred Palestinian traffic and set up checkpoints at both ends of the road. The measures led to the shutdown of local businesses and forced Palestinians to make long detours. Since the second Intifada in 2000, a low-lying concrete barrier was built to restrict Palestinians from walking in the street.

For many American Jews, organized trips to Israel often exclude visits to the West Bank, whether arranged through Israeli study abroad programs or Jewish organizations like Birthright and Aish.

Rizowy and Cohen's programs at Haifa University not only excluded, but restricted student travel to the West Bank. Despite Cohen's master program's emphasis on conflict zones and disputed territories, the university threatened consequences if they found students crossing into Palestinian territory, due to insurance restrictions and other limitations.

Regardless of such consequences, both Rizowy and Cohen deemed such a trip not only vital to their education, but also an opportunity to educate other uninformed American Jews.

"Most American Jews are very unaware of what goes on in the West Bank and the American Jewish lobby is very effective in Washington and I really think that if we want to lobby on behalf of Israel, we should know what's going on here," Cohen said. "Until the people understand these issues, no solutions will come and that's why people have to keep investigating, keep learning, keep striving to understand it more," Cohen said.

Upon returning to the United States in June, Rizowy, as part of his scholarship from the Jewish Agency for Israel, will be required to speak with different Jewish communities, including young students, about his experiences.

As part of his lectures, Rizowy plans to include his experiences in the West Bank, which may not depict Israel in the most positive light.

"A voice of dissent is not necessarily a bad thing, it's actually very patriotic," Rizowy said. "In my love for Israel, I can recognize that it does things that are wrong sometimes and my love for Israel is trying to fix them."

Although Rizowy said he gained a strong understanding of the conflict, it has only perpetuated a deeper confusion of where to go from here.

"I recognize that what is a victory for the Palestinian people might include the complete annihilation of a Jewish state," Rizowy said. "I still don't know how to come to terms with that. I think there needs to be education on both sides to remedy this and to say 'Look, your peace cannot include my annihilation and my peace cannot include your suffocation.'"

For Cohen, a similar feeling of uncertainty was prevalent.

"Visiting the West Bank was just one more in a series of things that showed me the true problems of Israel and I absolutely believe in Israel as a state and I want it to exist, I hope it exists, but I don't know how to fix this conflict," Cohen said.

Leading up to the West Bank trip, Rizowy said he failed to inform his father of the tour until he had actually arrived in the city of Hebron.

"He was very proud of me," Rizowy said. "He said that 'you really need to understand the facts on the ground in order to understand the conflict.'"

As for Cohen, she recognizes that a Jewish community's support for such education and understanding of the West Bank only goes so far.

"I am not sure how people will react," Cohen said. "My parents are curious and are happy to learn more, but when I get back I will see."

Come October, Cohen will be returning to the States, and is currently unsure what she'll be doing. Nevertheless, staying in Israel is not exactly an option.

"Secular American Jews want Israel to exist, want to visit, and think making Aliyah is great -- as long as it is not their child, relative or friend," Cohen said. "They all hope I have a wonderful and exciting year, but they want me to come back.

Despite both Cohen and Rizowy's inner confusion on how to solve this conflict, they both emphasized the need for education on both sides.

"Just speak with someone," Cohen said. "You don't have to agree with them, you don't have to like everything they say, but it's better to know the person you're in conflict with, it's better to know what they feel and what they think and what their problems are if you ever want to move forward."