It is amazing how many strangers want to spend money on college students.
Last May I received an application from the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization based in New York, for a paid trip with 18 other college editors to Poland, Bulgaria and Israel. I’m not Jewish, and I half-jokingly filled the application out in sloppy handwriting. To my surprise I was jumping up and down after receiving the confirmation call.
Many of the editors, the majority non-Jewish and from the East Coast, were skeptical that the ADL would try to put a pro-Jewish spin on the trip, since much of our time was spent touring sights of Jewish importance. But that wasn’t the motive.
Instead, the trip was two weeks of exposing us to the complexity of problems in Eastern Europe and Israel and the need for tolerance among all groups. All three countries have extensive histories of being conquered, and though formal democratic governments currently reside in power, they seem neither poised nor able to solve their countries’ most menacing problems.
Poland and Bulgaria both face standard-of-living, water-quality and unemployment plagues. Poles are coping with an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent, along with rising inflation and a homogenous nation (read: all white and Catholic). At soccer games, some fans hold up bananas at African players while making monkey gestures. It wouldn’t fly in the U.S., but that type of racism still prevails in numerous nations.
Bulgarian youth were very friendly, but all I talked to had the same ambition: go to the U.S. for college and/or a job. I remember biting my lip while listening to one woman’s plan of making it in Hollywood. But I can’t blame students for wanting to leave Bulgaria. Twenty percent of the country is unemployed, factories collect dust in the Bulgarian countryside, loans are hard to get and electricity prices are steadily rising. A night out at a club only costs $10 U.S., but for them that’s just under a week’s wage.
When we met with the assistants to the president, I asked the former minister of agriculture about the country’s water mismanagement. He sighed and muttered a few words about privatization of dams. The government sees tourism, along with European Union member status, as the key to its future. Unfortunately, the former communist country has little to offer.
Israel was the most interesting country on the tour. I knew very little about the conflict going on, but enough to know that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are wholly right in their actions. The streets were quiet in every city as merchants stared blankly into the deprivation of tourism and profits. On more than one occasion locals asked members of the group, “Aren’t you scared to be here?”
The truth is that most of us weren’t scared because the atmosphere, even in the old city of Jerusalem, wasn’t frightening. But the hate the media shows you is real. Israel has the largest concentration of foreign news bureaus in the world, and therefore lives under a global magnifying glass.
I remember reading in the Jerusalem Post about the U.S. and Defense Minister Colin Powell denouncing the counter-terrorism strikes Israel had launched on Palestinian office buildings in Gaza. In retrospect, it proved to be an easier statement to make than to actually carry out in policy.
Overall, the trip helped me to see the conflict in shades of gray, rather than black or white. For every point there is a counterpoint. Israel tightens its security in response to the deadly actions of a few, while Palestinians remain stateless and unable to attain a passport or job. Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat aren’t looking to compromise, and the people are the ones who will pay. Israel remains a country that has never in its history seen a lasting stretch of peace, and certainly doesn’t look to change soon.
Nevertheless, all places not worth living in are at least worth seeing. When it was all over, I was thankful the ADL gave me an opportunity to see three countries I will probably never see again. And the price was right.
Ted Andersen is the Daily Nexus news and training editor, and is beginning to rethink the value of filling out an application.