Penn Student Travels to Israel for Eye-opening Lessons in Civil Society

Amidst the religious, political and social unrest in Israel, one student from the University of Pennsylvania got a look at a diverse group of learners who explored the possibilities for a peaceful coexistence.

Brittany Keesling, a 2016 master’s of public administration candidate in Penn’s Fels Institute of Government in the School of Arts & Sciences, took her first trip to Jerusalem this summer for a class on "Civil Society in Israel" at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

She spent seven weeks wandering through Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia before heading to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem for the "Civil Society in Israel" class.

Keesling and four students from Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice -- Daniela Castejon, Carrie Grady, Rikkelle Showalter and Viviana Wo -- joined 15 other students for a five-day intensive course focusing on the idea of a “shared society” within the historically conflict-stricken region. 

“Shared society goes beyond the idea of just existing parallel to one another but rather collaborating to create a space that acknowledges and honors the history and roots of both cultures that call it home,” says Castejon, a social work student who works with Keesling as graduate associates at Dubois College House.

Israel’s attempt at a “shared society” is what interested Keesling the most.

“I have been fascinated by the geopolitical landscape of the country for many years now, and I figured the best way to learn about this country would be to immerse myself and have honest conversations with people on different sides of the spectrum, both Palestinians and Jews,” she says.

Through lectures and site visits, the course addressed the efforts of Jewish and Palestinian people to create communities and organizations dedicated to peace in a land where many Palestinians feel mistreated.

“The lectures were held by professors, who specifically researched peace and conflict resolution within the region and researched the plight of Palestinian society, and by non-government organization, or NGO, leaders who dedicated their lives to developing communities or initiatives to bring Jews and Palestinians together,” Keesling says.

The course was led by professor Ram Cnaan, the program director of the School of Social Policy & Practice’s Program for Religion and Social Policy Research, who is originally from Israel. It is part of the School’s Global Engagement Initiative.

“He was the perfect guide, both conceptually and culturally, throughout our adventure in Israel,” Keesling says. “It was the first time Dr. Cnaan brought Penn students with him to study at The Hebrew University.”

During her time in Israel, Keesling was struck by how, “while people advocate for peace in the region and for bridging the gap between Palestinians and Jewish people, there’s a key element that’s missing: collaboration.

“There was a disconnect between all of the great organizations that work to bring peace between societies. If real change is to be made, it is imperative that these organizations collaborate more on their efforts,” she says. “With collaboration, it is more likely that a social change will occur on a grander scale and that it may serve as a catalyst for political change and recognition of reconciliation.”

The course “was an incredible way to learn and challenge oneself to gain a more global perspective on topics that we can relate to right here at home,” Keesling says.

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