Amanda Reffsin (she/her/hers) is a first-year student in the IEDP, specializing in EiE and policy. Amanda graduated from Ithaca College with her BA in Culture & Communications and has been deeply rooted in civil service, youth advocacy and nonprofit work since. While at Penn, she consults for UNICEF USA, as well as acting as Social Media Manager for the Ware College House on Campus.

The whole Penn cohort with our professor, Ram Cnaan

I never expected to agree to give up half my well-earned winter break to take more classes, but I also didn’t know about the amazing opportunities to travel abroad through SP2 to gain hands on experience. Through IEDP, I’ve solidified my passion for education as a community building tool in conflict settings, so when I saw that a course called Civil Society Addressing Conflict in Israel & Palestine was being offered, I knew that winter break was going to be a little short this year.

I first went to Israel 10 years ago, but my trip was a very singular narrative in a very complex region. A little older, wiser, and more politically savvy, I was ready delve into the complexities and multiple narratives that exist in Israel, and that would challenge my previous understanding of such a nuanced crisis. Most importantly, I wanted this to be an academic experience that I felt and thought about long after our time in Jerusalem was over, and could shape my way of thinking for the rest of my master’s program.

View of Jerusalem from Hebrew University, where classes were held most days

Before we even got on the plane, we were working as a class to prepare ourselves on the historical, cultural, and political facets of what “coexistence” might even mean. We were asked to read a book from both the Jewish-Israeli and Arab/Palestinian-Israeli perspectives and watched the film Dancing Arabs (the title is A Borrowed Identity in English). We also paired up to do short presentations on different aspects of history, region, or conflict, covering topics from the Gaza Strip, right of return, the Oslo Accords and the UN Partition Plan.

Security barriers separating Rachel’s Tomb from the checkpoint into Bethlehem

Class was, to say the least, intense. We were moved by Yad Vashem, challenged by lectures across the political aisles, angered by some speakers and compelled by others, and felt the weight of being behind the security check point of Rachel’s Tomb. Every interaction we had was meant to further shape our own opinions and deepen our analysis. One of the most impactful women we met with was Rita, resident and PR Director of Oasis of Peace (Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam). This is Israel’s only intentional Arab-Jewish village, committed to bilingual, multicultural equality and a genuine and durable peace. On our last day in class, our speaker was actually the uncle of a dear friend of mine. The intercommunity grief support network he runs was already incredibly moving, but having a personal tie to their work made it all the more inspirational.

Rita Boulos of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom

I came out of this class even more sure that education is one of the greatest tools that can be utilized for communities that have faced long-term violence and conflict. One of the biggest lessons? Conflict cannot be described in a blanket statement. I know that seems like that should be obvious, but every speaker gave us a different facet of the challenges of coexistence, and for every small success, there are more questions and more power dynamics.

It was an incredibly important reminder that it’s so easy to be on the other side of the world ready to say “Well have they tried that? Why can’t they just do this?” It’s so easy to be an armchair expert, but we really need to ensure that community members leading this important work on the ground have support, because they’re the ones who live this conflict day after day. Local actors are just as important, if not sometimes more so, as the big players like UNWRA or Save the Children.

Jesslyn, Amanda and Kelsey from IEDP with their SP2 Professor Ram

Getting the chance to even spend a week within a context that I’ve spent so much time studying was truly an academic opportunity of which I’ll always be appreciative. The conversations we were able to have and the community members we met who are making such incredible strides will inspire the career I hope to have after graduation.