The name ‘Holy Land’ means different things to different people. I knew very little about the many competing narratives around this place until my time with Holy Land Trust. What started out as a crazy idea after I stumbled upon the Summer Encounter program online, it gradually turned into one that I toyed with frequently in my mind. Eventually, after extensive discussion with my parents and friends, I decided to step out into the unknown and signed up as a participant for a month-long tour of Israel and the West Bank, staying with a local host family in Beit Sahour. The experience was so special and unique that I returned as a coordinator the following year.
I would commend Holy Land Trust on their Summer Encounter program, as it does not try to provide pre-prepared answers to impossibly complicated questions. This authentic program seeks to expose participants to a full range of viewpoints and narratives and recognizes that they are intelligent individuals capable of making their own judgments on what they have seen. The important word here is “seen”; participants will learn about and form opinions on events happening not thousands of miles away through a TV screen, rather they will watch it unfold right in front of their eyes.
Summer Encounter seeks to give international participants a glimpse of the lived experience of both Palestinians and Israelis in the Holy Land. This authentic encounter is extremely valuable when it comes to understanding and exploring the beauty of the Holy Land. My opinions on the situation in Israel and the West Bank were, in a large part, formed through conversations with local coffee shop owners, through prolonged late-night chats with my host father, and through hanging out with the guys in Beit Sahour gym. You truly cannot get that anywhere else!
The excursions planned by HLT are, without exception, carefully designed, and considered. Utmost attention is paid to participant safety, and there is a conscious effort to expose participants to all viewpoints; not just those that talk of love and peace, but also of those that talk of exclusivity and division. I found this was really helpful in gaining a genuine and comprehensive understanding of the dynamics at play in this region of the world.
In my experience, a strong bond forms between participants and host families, many of whom have been hosting HLT participants for years. Despite a packed schedule, there is ample downtime in some stunning locations around the Bethlehem and Beit Jala areas. Great attention is also paid to cultural activities, such as cooking classes and learning local ‘Dabkeh’ folk dances. One of the highlights of every Summer Encounter is the annual Bet Lahem Live festival put on by Holy Land Trust, which sees the entire Bethlehem municipality turn into a carnival every August. This not only gives participants the opportunity to sample many different local foods and crafts but also provides a vital source of income and exposure for hundreds of artisan Palestinian stallholders.
From my previous capacity as both a participant and a coordinator, I would not hesitate to recommend the Summer Encounter as a comprehensive and challenging learning experience, for those well acquainted with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict just as much as those who are entirely new to the subject. This encounter is a truly immersive and unique experience for those who are keen to learn all sides of the story in the Holy Land. Even though I took part some years ago, I am still in touch with my friends in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. If you are reading this and are on the fence about taking part in HLT’s Summer Encounter Program; just do it!