About 60 people participated in a panel discussion on April 27 with alumni of Hillel at UCLA’s Fact Finders trip and watched a documentary filmed during last year’s trip. For the past two years, Fact Finders has brought groups of 22 students to Israel to learn about the conflict from a perspective untainted by media bias.
Participants, who came from Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist backgrounds, went to the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem and swam in the Dead Sea. But Fact Finders is not simply an interfaith version of Birthright. The entire trip focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and included discussions with people on both sides of the conflict, visits to cultural landmarks important to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and touring on both sides of the Green Line.
Fourth-year environmental science major, Inan Chowdhury, spoke about praying with a stranger he met at a mosque in East Jerusalem. When the man learned that he was American, he told Chowdhury all about his life story, then invited him to get coffee and see his ceramics shop. He said his father was an imam at the Dome of the Rock. When it came to the conflict, the man was not optimistic. He said there is too much anger and hatred because of all the things that have happened so that the two peoples cannot live next to each other.
The panelists emphasized how important it was for them to put aside past biases and approach the issues with a clean slate.
“Just open yourself up to every different perspective and ask a lot of questions,” Chowdhury said. “That’s the key to learning. Asking those questions. Asking the necessary questions, and not just questions to build your bias, to build your confirmation bias.”
The panelists’ heritages ranged from Israeli to Vietnamese to Bangladeshi. Some had never thought much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the trip, while others grew up supporting one side or the other, with a personal stake in the conflict’s ebbs and flows. Each time they got back on the bus after visiting a site or speaking with locals, the Fact Finders group would reflect upon the experience.
“I believe there’s a Jewish saying, ‘iron sharpens iron,’” Chowdhury said. “The idea that we don’t really start thinking about these things until we start talking with other people. We can talk to a bunch of people, but until we start breaking down for ourselves, and hearing ourselves talk about our views, we can’t really actualize it, and I think the biggest thing that I got out of the trip was being able to do that.”
Theater major, Vivi Le, did not even know where Israel was on the map until a day before the trip.
“That’s how ignorant I was, but that’s the point of the trip,” she said. “I had a very unbiased view of it since I did not have any stake in it.”
Le, whose parents were refugees from Vietnam and Thailand, said she struggles with her identity as an American because of the atrocities committed by Americans during the Vietnam War. Many of her family members have been harmed or imprisoned. Le said that one of the main things she took away from the trip was learning about that idea of passed-down trauma from one generation to another.
Next year’s Fact Finders trip will be in winter 2017-2018. In the meantime, third-year student, Leeav Nagola, one of the panelists at the documentary-screening event, spoke about potentially bringing together Fact Finders alumni for future discussions, called “Fact Finders Chill Talks,” where each alumnus would be responsible for bringing one other student who has approached the conflict from the Fact Finders perspective before.