Israel trip provides insight into conflict

President Ray reflects on his recent visit to Israel

Israeli President Shimon Peres, right, speaks to a group of American university presidents, including OSU President Ed Ray, on left. (contributed photo)

When President Ed Ray traveled to Israel in early July with a group of other university presidents, he was excited to talk with people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and learn more about the current political situation as well as to see places he’d only read about in history texts and the Bible.

What he wasn’t prepared for was the emotional impact the trip would have on him, from the power of the landscape itself to the stories he heard from those who had lived immersed in the conflict. It also helped him ease the loss of a close personal friend.

Ray was part of a delegation sponsored by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee. One of the participants who traveled with the Rays was Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, and current president of the University of Miami. The trip emphasized a multi-faceted look at the current political and social situation in Israel, and provided the opportunity for the visitors to speak with academics, administrators, journalists, political leaders, and others on both sides of the conflict.

“I was interested in the possibility of going to Israel, because all of our lives we’ve lived with the Israeli-Palestine conflict,” Ray said. “To get a chance to have a first hand understanding of what the issues are today, where things stand on the ground, to see the physical environment and get a sense of how threatened people feel on both sides of the conflict, and to see historic sites, was pretty exciting.”

Although his schedule was jammed with stakeholder meetings, there was a little free time for Ray and his wife Beth to visit some of the more significant landmarks in the area, including the Dead Sea, Masada, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and sites in old Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Western or Wailing Wall.”

“One of the things that surprised me was the emotional impact,” Ray said. “To see all these Biblical, historic sights you’ve heard about all your life but never been able to visit is pretty powerful.”

The trip also took on significance because of Ray’s recent loss, the death of his best friend growing up, Ira Krause, who was Jewish.

“He and I basically were brothers. We went through junior high school, high school and college together,” Ray said. During his trip, his thoughts often turned to his friend. “When we went and visited the Western Wall, I found myself going up and saying a prayer for him. That’s not something you can anticipate.”

But most of the trip was filled with discussions and exchanges with some of the area’s most powerful leaders and thinkers.

President Ed Ray and his wife Beth were among the American university leaders who had the chance to visit many sites in Israel and to speak with key stakeholders in the region. (contributed photo)

“One of the things that surprised me most was that virtually everyone agreed that if there is a solution to the conflict, it is the two-state solution. That seems to be incontrovertible,” Ray said. “But what was striking was opinions ran the gamut from believing that economic progress and political dialogue would expedite the solution, to the other extreme where people felt after the failure of the Oslo agreement, this is really an existential issue, and groups like Hamas will never accept the existence of Israel and will always insist on the right to return for Palestinians. One observer told us that not all problems have solutions and maybe this is a problem without a solution.”

Optimism was in short supply, Ray said, although one of the more hopeful leaders was Salam Fayyad.

“We went into the West Bank to Ramallah, and met with Prime Minister Fayyadd of the Palestinian Authority,” Ray said. “He’s an economist so I found that interesting (Ray is also an economist). He has been working for the last few years on local community projects, trying to change things at the street level to improve people’s lives. His basic strategy is if we can improve the lives of Palestinians and demonstrate the capacity to maintain security forces then that will speed up the day we can get to a solution. It was very uplifting and positive. In our next meeting we were told that Fayyadd’s party has 2 percent voter support. ”

The group also had the chance to sit down with President Shimon Perez of Israel. Ray asked Perez if he believed in the two-state solution.

“He said, ‘If you get a divorce and you live in the same house, you’re just going to fight the same battles over and over again. You’ve got to live in different houses.’ He was basically saying it was the only solution, but again, how you get from here to there is very difficult to fathom.”

One of the most heartening experiences Ray had was visiting the YMCA in old Jerusalem, where kindergarteners of Muslim and Jewish heritage played together.

“They don’t try to indoctrinate anyone to any other view. In every classroom they have an Israeli Hebrew teacher and an Arab teacher. They work together,” Ray said. “The director there told me that when he gets discouraged he watches the children interact and that provides hope on both sides of the conflict that peace is possible.”

Ray has been on many international trips during his time as president, from China and Thailand to India and Ireland and elsewhere. Each trip has given him perspectives on the cultures and educational backgrounds of some of OSU’s international students, as well as resulted in Memorandums of Understanding with some foreign universities. But the Israel trip had a particularly profound effect on Ray’s perspective about conflict.

“It has helped me appreciate that the problem they have may be unsolvable and that the divide among people there is very deepening. It does help put things in perspective.  We have great challenges here but there’s a lot to celebrate and feel good about too.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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