Centre College students had the opportunity to study abroad in Israel and Palestine during CentreTerm 2020 with NEH Associate Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce and Assistant Professor of Religion Shana Sippy. Throughout the course, titled “Holy Lands: Sacred Realities and Political Stories,” students sought to place the current religious and political climate and conflict in Israel and Palestine into a historical context.
“Our primary goal was to expose students to the diversity of perspectives—Palestinian, Israeli, Arab-Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, and to a lesser extent Sufi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Left and Right, Religiously Orthodox and Progressive, Secular and Nationalist—within the region and to help them consider the ways in which history and memory, place and symbol, practices and poetic-theological traditions have cultivated sentiments—political, social, cultural and religious,” Sippy said. “Our readings, discussions, meetings and site visits were centered around the idea of collective memories and how they function to shape sentiments, belonging, community, sacred spaces, ritual, forms of nationalism, geo-political and socio-cultural boundaries, conflict, and cooperation.”
Centre’s religion program had a class in Israel for many years, which was focused on the history and theology of the various religious traditions in the region. It was led by Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor of Religion Emeritus Tom McCollough—along with various other faculty over the years, including Pierce—and his background in archeology and Bible naturally shaped the course in significant ways.
“With McCollough’s retirement, Matthew and I decided to reinvent the course in ways that drew upon our academic backgrounds and areas of interest,” Sippy said. “We were both committed to focusing this course on the contemporary conflict, and we wanted to highlight and expose students to as many different people and perspectives as possible. We also wanted to contextualize those voices in the historical and religious landscape from which they have emerged, and that involved—in particular—visiting historical, religious and political sites that are often shared or contested sacred spaces.
“As someone who works on contemporary religion and politics, particularly the ways in which identities and collective memories shape how people understand themselves in relationship to nations and communities more broadly, the chance to do this course was particularly exciting for me,” she continued.
Their trip began in Jerusalem, visiting major Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred sites in the four quarters of the Old City. Students also visited the Holocaust museum, Yad Va’Shem, and the Banksy Museum at the Walled off Hotel in Bethlehem. A large number of the students also traveled to the Negev desert to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea.
Students visited a variety of sites on the trip, led by Palestinian and Israeli guides who deepened their exposure to different narratives. They also enjoyed authentic meals, including a Shabbat lunch at the home of Rabbi Joshua and Jenny Weinberg; a lunch at the Tent of Nations, which is a Palestinian Christian farm, with Daoud and Jano Nassar; and a lunch in a Druze village at the home of Yamin Zidan.
Pierce and Sippy’s ultimate goal for the course was to have students walk away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the various narratives and politics at work in contemporary Israeli and Palestine communities.
“Each of these experiences and sites allowed our students to get a sense of the layers and complexity of the conflict and the ways in which histories of trauma, persecution, dispossession, discrimination and violence, as well as traditions and commitments to sacred places and narratives inform and shape the creativity and conflict in the region,” Sippy added. “We were lucky to meet with political activists, religious leaders and activists, artists and attorneys.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
February 13, 2020