Northeastern in Israel: An Eye-Opening Experience

A student reflects on his 2022 Dialogue of Civilization Experience

By Frank Mastroianni

6 months ago, I embarked on a Dialogue of Civilizations to Israel that would prove to be critical for my college experience at Northeastern. The program took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, focused on Israeli/Palestinian literature and law, and was led by Professors Lori Lefkowitz and Simon Rabinovitch. This was my first time leaving the United States on a major trip, and I found the overall experience incredibly rewarding. The experience was intellectually stimulating, challenged my perspective, and helped me learn about the region.

I began the trip knowing very little about the region, outside of an interest in the Israel/Palestine conflict. My familiarity with the conflict was solely academic, having heard about it in popular media and in International Affairs classes at Northeastern, but never on a personal level. I wanted to know which side was “right” and which side was “wrong.” Thankfully, this Dialogue taught me the truth is far more nuanced than that. Visits to Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount, and discussions with in-class speakers helped me understand Jewish religious tradition and history. This in turn helped me better hear the perspective that Jews deserve to have a place in the world free from fear of persecution. I also heard another perspective, from reading Palestinian literature in class, to seeing Al-Aqsa mosque, to meeting with an Arab former member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). This perspective helped reinforce the idea that regardless of origin or creed, all deserve equal rights. I walked away from this trip hoping that the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and both visions can exist in this region in the future.

I walked away from this trip hoping that the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives are not mutually exclusive

These lessons sparked another question in my mind: how can a modern democracy like Israel thrive when its history has been so heavily influenced by religion? Our visit to the Israeli Supreme Court and meeting with a former Justice showed me that Israel’s laws and great legal minds have been heavily influenced by Western legal tradition, especially from the British system. We also visited a variety of religious courts, from a Muslim Sharia court, to a Druze one, and finally a Jewish one. During these visits, I learned that Israeli marriage laws are heavily influenced by religion. This fact stems from a compromise between Israel’s founders and religious authorities in the 1950’s. Arguably, this compromise helped ensure the existence of the state, but its legacy in a liberal democracy decades later is mixed. It is difficult for Israelis to get married outside of the religious system, even though those marriages are recognized. These lessons helped teach me that there might not be as strict of a dichotomy between democracy and religion as I imagined, and Israel might have an appropriate hybrid system that better reflects its history.

The group in Jerusalem, with Frank in the center

In the class, I completed projects that helped me grasp the lessons I just shared. I wrote a personal reflection essay and explored the Israeli and Palestinian perspective. I completed a Story Map that explored LGBTQ+ rights in the region, and in turn learned about the dichotomy between religion and modern liberal democracies. The class and these projects helped make a once in a lifetime experience in Israel truly fulfilling, and I could not recommend this Dialogue more!

Frank Mastroianni is a student in Northeastern’s Honors Program, and is pursuing a degree in Criminal Justice and Political Science, with a minor in International Affairs.

Read on the ground student accounts and view student work on the program’s blog here.

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