The Middle East Is Complicated: ITME “The Essence of Experiential Learning – Empowering Participants to Find Answers”
by Ben Pontz ’20 | ITME 5
As I peered out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, I was not entirely sure what to expect. After all, just about every image of the Middle East I had seen was punctuated with images of blood and flames and accented with sounds of gunfire and sirens. Yet, there was an odd sense of calm as we boarded the bus that would carry us throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories over the next 10 days as part of the Eisenhower Institute’s Inside the Middle East program, an expert program led by Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs Avi Melamed.
As the trip progressed, we would meet with students, policy-makers, and analysts as we worked to understand the arsenal of challenges — from acute economic and infrastructural maladies to burgeoning religious and political extremism — that this region faces.
We saw many of those challenges first hand. At the very first place we stopped, the Tsofim Observation Point, we could see into an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, and much of the Israeli coastline. This was the first of several points on the trip where we saw the varying narratives of the Middle East literally collide. The next evening, we heard from four Jerusalemites, both Palestinians and Israelis, on their connection to the city. What was striking about the dialogue was the level of nuance that each panelist brought to the conversation; western media portrayals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to squeeze out moderate voices and focus predominantly on waves of violence. Furthermore, panelists emphasized that dialogue offered the best hope for a path forward that might eventually lead to the easing of tensions on each side of the conflict, and that, while international involvement is needed in ongoing negotiations, too often foreign heads of state want to be involved only to the extent that they want to be “the guy” who “solved” Middle East peace for once and for all. They rely on a hasty briefing or faulty preconceived notions, and they fail to listen to what those in the trenches of the conflict tell them. The fruits of such an approach are evident in western policy towards the Middle East over the last several decades: systematic failure.
Later in the trip, we traveled into the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and met with a Palestinian professor who has advised political leaders on both sides of the conflict for decades. Each side fails to see that the other is composed of humans, he said. He cited anecdotes of Israeli Jewish children chanting “Death to Arabs!” and of Palestinian Muslim children chanting “Death to Jews!” He believes this hate is taught and incubated in schools, and, now in the twilight of his career, he would like to start a kindergarten to shape the next generation of Arab-Israeli interactions from the ground level.
Hearing voices from such a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds throughout the trip and experiencing for myself just how close everything is geographically — Israel is about the size of New Jersey, and, over the course of just four days, we stood at Nachal Oz and peered into Gaza, entered Ramallah and met with Palestinians, drove along the Jordanian border and looked across the River Jordan, stopped in the Golan Heights and looked into Syria, and ascended a hill to the Kibbutz Misgav Am observatory to gaze deep into Lebanon — the multidimensional complexity of the region we spent so much time dissecting on the Gettysburg campus came to life. It was the essence of experiential learning; only so much can be accomplished in the classroom. I had always considered myself to be fairly informed on issues of the region, but Inside the Middle East has transformed my outlook and helped me begin to know how much I don’t know, which has inspired a desire to keep learning. These on-the-ground experiences provided the crucial link between what we could read and what was actually happening. Where one might be lucky to hear one or two aspects of an issue affecting the Middle East in the United States, on the ground, we heard three, four, five, or ten factors that overlapped, intertwined, and collided.
This program has been a paradigmatic shift from any educational experience I have had before. Avi threw us into the deep end, where one could easily drown from the deluge of sources, buzzwords, and narratives we encountered, and then taught us how to swim by wading through all of the information as we began to understand what is actually happening on the ground. Someone once asked me whether Avi and the ITME program has a political agenda; the truth is that Avi’s only bias is towards reality.
From day one, we were challenged to interrogate our preconceived ideas, to analyze an issue from a different angle, and to synthesize everything that we gather as we worked to use the intelligence we had gathered to make a prediction at the end of our intelligence bulletins and reports that would, in Avi’s words, meet the test of reality. Knowing that you have to go on the record to make a prediction leaves nowhere to hide faulty logic, missing information, or poor reasoning … in other words, the type of soundbites that, far too often, pass for “expert analysis” from pundits whose experience with the issues of the Middle East are confined to an echo chamber that reinforces their ideological worldview with little regard to what is actually happening on the ground. Avi also insisted that we write concisely, using no more than a few pages for even the most complicated of subjects, which was an incredibly challenging – yet unbelievably beneficial – demand. The attention to detail and mandate of excellence that this program fosters will surely serve anyone wishing to pursue a path in government, media, politics, intelligence, the law, non-profits, non-governmental organizations, or the private sector.
Breaking free from that model transforms the arc of what is possible in discussions about the Middle East. No longer is the Israel-Palestine conflict an emotionally-driven either/or situation with a villain and a righteous actor; rather, it is a complex piece of a broader geopolitical struggle that has implications across the region even beyond the realm of security in areas such as economic development, political legitimacy, and religious pluralism.
In a world too often enamored with simplified narratives that bear little resemblance to the real world, ITME provides students and policymakers the tools to reach informed conclusions and make actionable recommendations based on insights that are grounded in sound analysis. For me, a crucial takeaway from ITME was the feeling of confidence that comes from making a prediction that I knew was rooted in reality — not a hopefully lucky hunch or some ill-considered, emotionally-driven certitude — and would stand or fall on its merits. It’s hard work, as it should be. Only when we hold those in power to a standard of excellence that compels creative thinking and reasoned synthesis can we expect our policy posture to improve. ITME is training leaders to do just that.
Next year marks 50 years since the death of President Eisenhower, and I recently re-read his 1961 farewell address. In it, he said, “During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” Inside the Middle East honors President Eisenhower’s legacy by working to build that confederation of mutual trust and respect through the sense of informed citizenship and civic engagement that this program cultivates. Our world certainly needs it.
Ben Pontz, who just completed the 5th cohort of ITME at Gettysburg College is a political science and public policy double major at Gettysburg College where he also minors in music. In addition to participating in the Inside the Middle East program, he is the editor of The Gettysburgian campus newspaper, program and communications manager for the Fielding Center for Presidential Leadership Study, and drum major of the Bullets Marching Band. He plans on a career in public service or journalism.