Eastern Mennonite University
A Cross-Cultural Program

Article for ATG education
Linford Stutzman

For the past 12 years my wife and I have been leading the Middle East cross cultural study semester for Eastern Mennonite University.  Ever since visiting this part of the world back in the 1970s, I have been impressed by the incredibly rich history, and by the amazing religious, cultural, and political diversity compressed in this exceedingly small geographical area. This is the ideal place to learn about the world, a kind of eternal laboratory of human hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, love and hate, beauty and ugliness.

But to visit Israel and Palestine does not necessarily mean that genuine learning occurs. What is vital in a cross cultural learning program are honest, trustworthy, and even prophetic local partners who make arrangements for people with courage to share their perspectives, to tell their stories, and to show students the realities with which they live.

A central component of our Middle East study semester is the three to four weeks we spend in Beit Sahour, Palestine in the learning program arranged by Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) living with Palestinian families, studying Arabic, learning from a variety of lecturers, and taking field trips to visit the Wall and places like Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus. We brought our first student group to Beit Sahour in 2001 during the Second Intifada. Since then, thanks to the creative and careful planning of ATG in the midst of violence, invasions, curfews, and check-point closures, we have returned time and again. We have never canceled a single trip; we have never had a single safety problem – a testimony to both the fallacy of the media’s portrayal of Palestine, and the commitment and expertise of ATG to visitors’ safety.  And in the process, the students learn in ways that change, not just their opinions, but their lives. 

One of the features of EMU’s cross-cultural program in the Middle East is that students are exposed to all sides of the divisive issues that dominate life in both Palestine and Israel. Due to the vast relational network of ATG, they are able to bring together a rich variety of Palestinian leaders ranging from the authors of the Kairos Document,politicians, internationally recognized professors, and heroes of creative resistance to the restrictions under which Palestinians live. And they do so knowing that we will be listening to convincing Israeli voices as well. This takes a kind of generosity and even the risk of misunderstanding.  But ATG does this with affirmation, flexibility, and humor.

Recently, during the fall Homecoming, EMU celebrated the 30-year anniversary of its cross-cultural study program. For the occasion, they invited Rami Kassis, executive director of ATG, to represent the program in Palestine. It was during Rami’s presentation to the former and current students of EMU that the significance of this 12-year educational partnership with ATG became visible. The students who had studied Palestine with ATG were invited to stand, an astonishing number. But it was at the reunion of students who had participated in the Middle East cross-cultural semester over the years, where the life-changing impact of this experience on those participants became even clearer. Over and over we heard former students describe how their lives had changed following their Middle East cross-cultural study, how their commitments to serve others,  to work for peace and justice, to choose careers they felt could contribute to human well-being.

The “alternative” in ATG’s name represents an alternative to status quo tourism, an alternative to the kind of learning that reinforces bias that builds knowledge without wisdom, intellect without insight. ATG represents an alternative by contributing to education that changes students, and the world.