Local law students visit Israel

Led by Professor Andrea Schneider, Marquette University program is an ‘inspiration’

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For Cole Altman, Israel has never been a foreign place.

A Jewish kid from Fox Point, the 25-year-old had twice been to the country before heading back this March as part of a Marquette University Law School seminar centered around conflict resolution efforts.

As part of the course, students spent just over a week visiting tourist sites and cultural landmarks, while also learning about the country’s legal systems, history and culture, and meeting with groups and individuals working to resolve conflicts.

Marquette University Law School student and Milwaukee native Cole Altman poses with a young boy during a visit to Budo for Peace, a nonprofit organization in Israel that uses traditional martial arts to connect and bring together children and youth from diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds.

Getting a chance to visit Israel with more than 40 other law students — the bulk of them non-Jews — gave Altman the unique ability to see the country through the eyes of his classmates, many of whom may never have visited were it not for the class: “Having the privilege of being to Israel, and knowing the beauty and wonders that the holy land has to offer, it was moving to see people who would otherwise never be experiencing the culture getting to see how beautiful it is.”

Why Israel

Marquette University Law Professor Andrea Schneider, who has been teaching the International Conflict Resolution seminar for 15 years, decided to make Israel one of the primary countries of focus about five years ago.

Schneider, who joined the faculty of Marquette University Law School in 1996, made the choice after realizing that the seminar might be the only chance many Marquette students have to visit Israel.

“People will get themselves to Europe, especially if they are travelers, but the vast majority of non-Jewish students will not get to Israel unless I hold their hands and take them,” Schneider said.

In addition to getting to visit religious and historical sites like Masada, the Dead Sea, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall, students on the trip met with the grassroots organizations working to bring peace to the country and region.

Among the many leaders the group met with were Riman Barakat, the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and Asher Dan Grunis, former president of the Supreme Court of Israel.

Grassroot efforts

The students also visited several nonprofits, including Sindyanna of Galilee, a fair trade farming collective where Jewish and Islamic women work side-by-side to produce olive oil, honey and a spice mix called za’atar. They also visited EcoPeace, an organization where Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists work together to protect the region’s environmental heritage.

“There is so much more to Israel than just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Schneider said of the grassroots groups. “The political system does not always reflect people’s best selves. There is so much important work going on that has nothing to do with the political leadership in the region.”

A tour guide talks to Marquette University Law School students, and others, about the countries that share a border with Israel during a tour of the Golan Heights.

Takeaways

In addition to seeing the emotional impact places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, had on his fellow students, Altman said he was most struck by the diversity of the groups working to make life better for people in Israel. One of those groups was Kuchinate: African Refugee Women’s Collective in Tel Aviv, which seeks to empower African asylum seekers in Israel by teaching them how to design and crochet products such as baskets and rugs.

“Teaching African asylum seekers to learn a craft isn’t something you think of right away when you think about Israel and its conflicts, but as part of this project we got to (learn about the role art and culture play in conflict resolution),” Altman said. “Those two things were really, really interesting.”

For Minnesota native Khatija Choudhry just getting to visit sacred religious sites was invaluable.

Third-year Marquette University Law School student Khatija Choudhry poses for a photo near the Israeli-Syrian border.

“I am a Muslim woman. Being able to go to a number of the sites basically would have been impossible without Marquette University,” Choudhry said. “We actually entered the Dome of the Rock — I and another Muslim student — which was really incredible.”

Visiting the Golan Heights, and seeing just how close the region is to the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, was also powerful, she said.

“The biggest takeaway for me was that conflict is complicated. As Americans we can oversimplify things sometimes,” Choudhry said. “Just being aware that there is a certain cultural competency that we need to have, and an understanding of what is happening on the ground, is really important.”