Canadian students on FSWC’s inaugural Campus Advocacy Fellowship trip to Israel just returned home after taking part in the jam-packed, educational tour. Emily Bonnell, Advocacy Lead at FSWC, who helped staff the trip, explains below why it proved such an enriching experience.
Reflections on ‘Discovering’ Israel Up Close
By Emily Bonnell
Just back from Tel Aviv, I’m still reeling from the impact of my first direct exposure to Israel. It came in the form of an intense, eye-opening and immersive eight-day visit to the Jewish state as part of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) Campus Advocacy Fellowship. I had the privilege of accompanying a group of Canadian university students on an educational tour that provided invaluable insight into life in Israel.
The trip is a key component of a year-long Fellowship program in which participants gain relevant knowledge and skills to combat antisemitism and champion human rights on their campuses and beyond. FSWC launched this initiative in response to the growing misinformation about Jews and Israel on campuses.
The esteemed Fellows, hailing from diverse backgrounds and predominantly non-Jewish, have a keen interest in Middle Eastern affairs, Jewish history and culture, and Israel. Fellows were selected for their leadership qualities and desire to strengthen their abilities in advocacy and allyship-building.
As a gentile ally of the Jewish community serving as the Advocacy Lead at FSWC, the opportunity to visit Israel, savour its appeal, and explore its complexities was a dream come true.
Immediately after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, our group travelled to Jerusalem. We began with a visit to the bustling Mahane Yehuda market, where the spirit of the Holy City in preparation for Shabbat came alive. Next, we went to the Western Wall, a sacred place of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage in the Old City. That evening, our exploration of Israeli identities started with a traditional Shabbat dinner warmly hosted by Rabbi Shimon Felix and his wife, Iris. They facilitated a candid, captivating discussion which established the constructive tone for our ensuing conversations throughout the week.
During our jam-packed program, the group engaged with a broad cross-section of Israelis, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and Ethiopians. This diversity, which was central to our itinerary, made for a more enriching trip. Despite the challenges these communities face, everyone we met expressed a yearning for peace. They exuded pride in their Israeli identity and voiced optimism for an even better future. Each interaction we had further demonstrated that to fully understand Israel, you must see it for yourself.
The open-armed welcome we received from each community, transcending our differing backgrounds, faiths and beliefs, proved a heart-warming highlight of the trip. This experience reinforced my belief that to ensure peaceful coexistence, we must respect each other’s differences and create safe spaces to voice alternate narratives and perspectives.
The privilege of engaging with both Jewish Israelis and members of its other communities gave me a new understanding of the country and a better appreciation of its complexity. I’ll be forever thankful for having the opportunity to ‘discover’ Israel in such an informative and meaningful way. After going on this journey, I now have a greater desire to learn more about this fascinating and often-misunderstood country.