What It’s All About: Tales from Tel Aviv by Fulbright Grantee Kyle Desrosiers
The standard advice for anybody wishing to further their academic experience abroad is that they should approach new cultures, lifestyles, and viewpoints they encounter with flexibility and humility. Being a guest in an unfamiliar place is not easy, but the challenges, relationships, and wisdom gained make life rich. If international scholarship is about learning and engaging, then in 2020-2021, when global institutions and systems are upended in order to preserve health and safety, then study and research abroad demands all the more patience and adaptation. In the land of Israel-Palestine, where there is no such thing as “normal,” these lessons are all the more salient.
I have been in Israel now for almost 5 months, nearing the longest I have ever been away from Texas. I arrived in October, and immediately spent 14 days in quarantine in a tiny dorm with two strangers. The first new words in Hebrew I learned were bidud, which means quarantine, and seger, the word for the government restrictions on commerce and gatherings, which has lasted since last March, and has tightened and loosened as case numbers have risen and fallen.
Since being in Israel, I have been challenged and pushed, perhaps even more so in this time of global illness, death, and exacerbated economic strife. These conditions I believe only serve to highlight conditions of poverty and injustice that already exist, which is as abundantly apparent in Israel as it is in the United States. During my fellowship, I have been working to deepen my social conscience as I discern my vocation to use journalism and education for good. It has been an honor and privilege to have received the Fulbright fellowship in this year and to this place.
The Fulbright grant I received is for study in the Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution and Mediation program at Tel Aviv University. Interestingly, each time I tell my new friends here about this, they grin and say something like “good luck,” or “you came to the right place for that.” Academia in Israel has the same challenges of elitism and structural privilege as in America, but I would argue the universities here are also crucibles where ideas about peace-building, the pursuit of justice, and human rights are refined. I believe the global situation of COVID-19 has helped to wake up those who may have previously been oblivious to systems of racial injustice, economic exploitation, and unequal healthcare institutions—wisdom the world’s spiritual teachers such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are reflecting on in this year. Similarly, here in Israel-Palestine, questions of racial and ethnic integration, economic equality, and pluralism are difficult concepts to wrestle with, and the challenges are exacerbated further in this health crisis.
Since being here, I have had my political viewpoints challenged in a place that revolves around one of the most discussed and polarizing conflicts in the world. I have worked to learn and develop skills for conflict resolution, and have grown to become more critical of Israeli politics and institutions than I was before I arrived here. At the same time, I am also more convinced of its necessary existence as a refuge and homeland for the Jewish people—among whom half of the population are descendants from North African and Asian Jewish refugees who fled persecution, genocide, and violence, while others are Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and others still are recent refugees such as the 130,000 members of Beta Israel from Ethiopia.
While I strive to better understand the narratives of self-determination and freedom from persecution that underlay much of the cause of Zionism, I am also all the more convinced of the need for Palestinian self-determination and liberation. This land is not equal, and in addition to Arab communities, ultraorthodox Jewish communities here also face poorer economic and educational opportunities than the more secular elites. Being in Israel means there are few days when I am not moved and challenged. I regularly engage in interfaith dialogue and am currently preparing to start an internship at an arts and peace-building collaborative, IMPACT (Imagining Together Platform for Arts and Conflict Transformation), supported by Brandeis University. In these experiences where I am challenged, I also see seeds of hope. This land is a special place that must be better understood in the context of the history and current reality of all parties involved, so that those inside and outside can work together to develop a land of self-determination, justice, and flourishing of all of its residents.
In short, I am glad I came here—of all places—in this year—of all years—to study conflict and peacemaking. The thoughts I wrestle with in my life in Israel are developed and transformed through the curriculum of my Conflict Resolution and Mediation MA program. I have already had the privilege of taking seminars such as Islamic and Jewish Approaches to Conflict Resolution, Social Psychology and Conflict, modern Middle Eastern history, Palestinian politics, and legal and political approaches to conflict and mediation. I am also currently enrolled in a special certification-granting mediation workshop led by experts from around the world. I have also joined a ceramics cooperative, where I practice my art. I have formed friendships with colleagues who are Israeli Jews, Arabs in Israel, people from China, Latin America, and Europe, on all points along the political spectrum, and have different ideas of approaching the political situation in this land and in the world at large.
My heart has been profoundly stirred during my Fulbright year. If it had not, I would have wasted this opportunity. In all I do here—okay, in almost all I do here—I still make time to go to the beach, hike, and try creative vegetarian food, which is a big deal here in Tel Aviv—I strive to practice humility, an openness to learning, and seek to understand before passing judgement. Of course, I often fall short. Of course, I also sometimes feel lonely living abroad, and confused by the culture and politics here. Nonetheless, I am glad I have the opportunity to study here. I am being challenged and stretched. I am deeply indebted to my Jewish and Arab colleagues and teachers. I am so glad I went out on a limb to apply for Fulbright.
Ultimately, the experience is not about the productive output of the year—though that is a nice bonus. Rather, this academic experience is first and foremost about growth and challenge. Thanks to being here, I now have more questions than answers about conflict resolution in this crazy world. At the same time, I have never felt more convinced in my vocational aspirations to be a journalist reporting on religion and conflict. Nor have I ever been more excited to engage in interreligious dialogue professionally, as I advocate for a more pluralist and just society for people of all faith and non-faith backgrounds.
I encourage any and all eager young Baylor academics to apply for Fulbright, to stretch themselves to pick a challenging program and place. My advice is the same advice I continually offer myself: humbly approach the uncertainty, seek to deepen the formation of your conscience, and discern how to use your skills and talents to build a better world. That is what it’s all about.