Walking through a century of conflict in the Middle East

Through Penn Abroad, a new Penn Global Seminar guides undergraduate students through 100 years of conflict with an international excursion to Israel and Jordan during spring break.

Camel ride in Jordan

At the University of Pennsylvania, more than 1,000 students participate in international study courses each year.

Organized through Penn Abroad, Penn Global Seminars advance the University’s commitment to global engagement and foster connections with other cultures by adding a short-term international travel component to intensive undergraduate courses.

One of six Penn Global Seminars offered this spring, “The Middle East in Conflict: A Century of War and Peace,” the semester-long course included an overseas excursion to Jordan and Israel during spring break.

Taught by Samuel Helfont from the International Relations program in the School of Arts and Sciences, the course is guiding 16 students from various majors on an exploration of the modern Middle East, which has witnessed tremendous conflict since World War I.

“The seminar exposes students to the primary types of conflicts that have manifested in the region over the past 100 years,” says Helfont, who has taught at Penn since 2015. “But it would be impossible for one course to cover all conflict in the Middle East over the past century.”

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Instead, “The Middle East in Conflict” examines the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamist terrorism, and the Iraq wars, which represent case studies on ethno-national conflict, religious conflict, and intervention by powerful nations.

The class began with an introduction to the Middle East and the emergence of its modern political system. It explained each side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, investigating ethno-national tensions in the region between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish people, and outlined options for possible compromise.

During the first part of the course, much of the time was spent discussing the peace process and why it has failed so far. This, says Fiona Jensen-Hitch, a junior anthropology and English major from Santa Fe, N.M., included a class debate that put students in the shoes of each of the two sides, arguing either for or against a two-state solution.

The course is the foundation for her anthropology senior research project, which will study Bronze Age human skeletal remains excavated in the 1950s and 1960s from Gibeon, a historic Canaan site near the Palestinian city of al-Jib in the West Bank.

“My intent in taking this class was to gain a broader understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since the excavation occurred in the midst of it, and to apply the knowledge I gain to both the project and to comprehending how ancient sites continue to be used in claims of identity,” Jensen-Hitch says.

Freshman Devin Trivedi of Moorestown, N.J., was already familiar with Helfont’s work from attending his lectures at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He says the course immediately demonstrated that conflict in the Middle East is much more nuanced and complicated than it seems.

“There is no clear black-and-white solution,” Trivedi says. “I was struck by how much history both Jordan and Israel have and how this history has shaped and continues to shape the nations’ narratives.”

At the end of the first section, the students went to Jordan and Israel “to observe the ramifications of these conflicts firsthand,” Helfont explains.

They visited Jerusalem, where they walked to the bottom of the Mount of Olives, entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and stopped in the Khalidi Library, established in 1899 under Ottoman rule.

They also rode a cable car up to the top of Masada, an ancient fortress plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.

Swimming in the Dead Sea

“Floating in the Dead Sea was fantastic and unique,” says Jensen-Hitch, who adds that for her visiting Israel and Jordan helped to humanize the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“In the classroom, we talked a lot about big picture items-–events, wars, borders, sides, etc.–-and, when we actually went to the area, it became apparent that nothing was simple or binary,” she says. “What’s reported usually removes the individual human experience.”

The students also visited Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel and went to Wadi Rum, where they spent the night camping in the desert after enjoying a traditional Zarb Bedouin dinner of meats cooked under the sand.

For Jensen-Hitch, spending the night in the desert more than 7,000 miles from home felt familiar in some ways, which made her love it even more.

“I have gone camping before and slept in many kinds of structures, from very flimsy tents to wooden cabins,” Jensen-Hitch concedes, “and this was probably one of the best camping experiences I’ve had.”

The best part of the night in Wadi Rum, Jensen-Hitch says, was waking up at 5 a.m. to ride camels away from the campsite and watch the sunrise.

“We’d watched the sunset after jeep rides the night before, so it felt like it came full circle,” she says.

In addition, the students stopped at Petra, a well-known archaeological site; toured Roman ruins in Amman, Jordan’s capital; and reflected on their shared experiences over a traditional farewell dinner.

Vertical Jordan

“On the last night, we walked around the markets and talked to Palestinian shop owners about their lives and family experiences,” Jensen-Hitch says. “It was completely unstructured and casual, but hearing individuals’ stories was really impactful for me.”

The next section of the course will cover Islamist terrorism, including the rise of international terrorist networks, considering if and to what extent religious views intersect with violence.

The final case study will focus on the Iraq wars from Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom, illustrating what happens when great powers intervene. A final research paper assignment on some aspect of conflict in the Middle East will wrap up the semester in May.

After having the opportunity to talk with people in both Israel and Jordan firsthand, learning about their lives and how they have related to historic events, Jensen-Hitch says this journey was much more informative than just reading about it in a textbook.

“It helped that we talked first about theory, then historical and current events, and then we were able to travel and geographically contextualize our discussions,” Jensen-Hitch says. “As an anthropology major, I know how important speaking to various groups and individuals is in attempting to understand any facet of culture and society.”

Trivedi walked away from the trip with a deep appreciation for the rich culture and histories of both Jordan and Israel. He says this experience has fostered close friendships with upperclassmen, but more importantly, it’s an introduction to possibly spending a semester overseas through other Penn Global programs. Jensen-Hitch is also already thinking about applying to future seminars

In Jordan, desert INTL 280