Fresno college student’s trip to Israel ‘complicated my narrative’

College students on a tour of Israel in early January 2016 visit the Cistern of Masada.
College students on a tour of Israel in early January 2016 visit the Cistern of Masada. Special to The Bee

While walking through a community in Israel earlier this month, JoAnna Kroeker of Fresno was told she had 10 seconds to find shelter if she heard a siren.

Rocket fire from nearby Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, never reached the 20-year-old, but the experience was definitely “sobering.”

“To be on a tour and constantly looking for the closest bomb shelter was psychologically totally rattling.”

It was a startling reminder of ongoing conflict plaguing the region while Kroeker was on a 10-day tour of Israel alongside around 160 other college students.

The sophomore at Hillsdale College in Michigan also got a glimpse into another Israel – one where people of different faiths coexist peacefully, and businesses thrive despite challenging circumstances – by speaking with journalists, politicians, police officers and other community members.

“I think students really liked that inside look,” says Bob Norton, vice president and general counsel for Hillsdale, who was on the trip. “We weren’t on a tour-bus tour.”

The trip was sponsored by the Philos Project and the Museum of the Bible, with large donations from hedge fund manager and philanthropist Paul Singer and the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby. Students paid just $500.

The aim was to give students a fuller picture of modern-day Israel while also journeying into its historic past by visiting a number of holy sites for Christian, Jewish and Muslim people.

Kroeker is a French major and journalism minor interested in foreign correspondence or nonprofit work. She was one of 81 students chosen from Hillsdale to go on the trip out of more than 250 applicants. Norton says those chosen are among the college’s “brightest and best.”

During the trip, Kroeker got to do things like dine with an elderly Holocaust survivor and visit a Holocaust museum, float in the Dead Sea, and visit religious sites in iconic places such as Jerusalem and Nazareth.

Visiting the ruins of Caesarea Philippi near the Sea of Galilee, a city built during the Roman Empire, helped inform her Christian faith. At one point, the tour guide surprised her: “This is where Jesus said, ‘Peter, this is where you will build the new church.’ … For Peter to even say, ‘I believe that you are who you are’ means a lot more when you’re next to a temple to Pan or Zeus.”

Kroeker says speakers throughout the trip helped her gain more insight into issues facing a complicated place.

“It’s not just religious or colonialism,” she says. “It’s not just racism, it’s not radical Islam … it’s all of these things and more. And it’s something we can’t just solve.”

Kroeker says she could never go back to thinking “pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, because now you’ve met people.”

She learned a lot – especially that she is eager to learn more.

“Going to Israel has complicated my narrative and given me more questions than answers.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge