Fighting in the Middle East has recently escalated, adding to
the danger of the conflict-ridden region, but for many students,
the benefits of a trip to the Middle East outweigh the risks. Many
students who plan to study abroad in the Middle East or go on group
trips said violence is not enough to deter them from going
abroad.

This May, 40 to 60 University students will travel to Israel on
the Birthright Israel trip, joining close to 50,000 students
nationwide who have taken the trip since it began five years ago.
The trip, organized in part by University Hillel, offers students a
free visit to various cities in Israel in order to learn about
Judaism and the country.

University Hillel Program Director Ben Berger said he brought 35
students on the Birthright trip this winter, but he added that
security remains one of the program’s main concerns.

“(Hillel International) feels very strongly that if we
were not able to provide a safe, secure and celebratory trip, we
would not go,” he said. In the last five years, no Birthright
participant has been injured by violence in Israel.

“It’s also important to realize that Israel is much
more than you see on the news. It’s a vibrant, surviving
democracy where there is amazing culture and life, and we feel
it’s very important that people from America get to see the
country,” Berger said.

Other students also said the media skews the portrayal of the
Middle East and that the region is not as dangerous as depicted on
television and in newspapers.

“The media portrayal of the situation in the Middle East
is not always accurate. People there do not live in fear. They live
normal lives in which they regularly go out and enjoy their
country,” LSA sophomore Allison Hollander said.

But Hollander said she is still weighing the danger of a trip to
Israel against its benefits. Hollander has until the end of April
to withdraw from the trip. “All of the violence and conflict
that is taking place there has definitely made my decision about
the trip more difficult. … I plan to assess the situation in
Israel until (April 30) in order to decide whether the trip is too
big of a safety risk.”

LSA sophomore David Morley said he also plans to travel to
Israel on the Birthright trip because of his curiosity about the
region. “I want to go see what it’s about. What is this
place everybody’s fighting over?” he said. “I
believe that it’s actually safer there than it is
here.”

But he said his family members worry about his safety. “My
parents told me to go … they said it was a great
opportunity. Of course they’re nervous — they’d
be nervous when I would go anywhere — but not anymore nervous
about being in Israel,” Morley said.

Other students who plan to travel to the Middle East said
stereotypes of the region are not accurate.

LSA junior Moumen Asbahi, a member of the Muslim Students’
Association, said he hopes to visit Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates and Syria this summer or winter to study Arabic and
Islam.

“People in the Middle East seem to be more welcoming of
others and they are very open. … Americans are high on
themselves a little bit, and I think that the Middle East people
just think they are part of a greater community,” Asbahi
said.

Last fall, Asbahi participated in a study abroad program in
Cairo, Egypt. He performed medical research and received biology
credit. He also traveled to Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

“It is a wonderful place to visit and it will change
people’s perspectives. A lot of people believe that (Arabs)
hate Americans and hate Western ideals, but in reality,
they’re very welcoming and very pluralistic,” Asbahi
added.

Graduate student Robert Haug said traveling to the Middle East
helps break down stereotypes. Haug studies early Islamic history
and has been to the Middle East twice. He has visited Morocco,
Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

“I would encourage anyone interested in traveling to the
Middle East to do so, but they really should do some research
first. Americans tend to have a lot of stereotypes about the Middle
East, and that’s something I wouldn’t recommend
bringing with you. It’s best to go with an open mind, some
background knowledge, and a little Arabic never hurt,” Haug
said.

The Office of International Programs’ policy is not to
send students to countries for which the U.S. State Department has
posted a travel warning, OIP Director Carol Dickerman said. While
only some countries in the Middle East have travel warnings, the
University currently does not sponsor any study abroad programs in
the region.

Berger said the Birthright trip was organized after
philanthropists designated funds six or seven years ago to engage
young Jewish adults in Judaism.

“What they realized was one of the major experiences is to
go to Israel, Israel being at the heart of the Jewish
people,” Berger said. “The idea is that it is supposed
to give these participants an Israel experience, seeing and
understanding all that is Israel — culturally, politically,
religiously — in all of its many facets.”

The trip lasts for 10 days and participants travel to Tel Aviv,
Haifa, Jerusalem and Galilee. Participants also get to meet Israeli
politicians, writers and Palestinian politicians.

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