25 March 2015: Portraits of Jerusalem

Written by Melissa Wang | Images by Sarah Novak

Western wall in Jerusalem, the temple mount
Western wall in Jerusalem, the temple mount.

Considered a holy site to three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, and stands at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Led by Professors Anne Kreps and Robin Hemley, 15 Yale-NUS students visited sacred spaces in Jerusalem from 20 to 28 February 2015, in a bid to understand why Jerusalem seems mired in so much conflict.

The students documented their experiences in the form of travel writing. By interviewing and speaking with a multitude of people who live in the complex city, they translated their experiences into written portraits. These will subsequently be collated in a college publication, which will showcase the diverse perspectives of sacred history in contemporary Israel.

While this Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme was not intended to be a religious heritage trip, the religious element held much appeal for some students.

Herman Lim, Class of 2018, noted that Jerusalem remains the volatile epicentre of the three great monotheistic religions that continues to shape even interpersonal relations today. Growing up in a Muslim household, he jumped at the opportunity to visit the city.

“It was hard to believe that my college was presenting me with the opportunity to visit an area of conflict that has been so close to my heart,” Herman shared.

Through the site visits and interviews, students had their perceptions of the conflict challenged. “This LAB really made me realise the true value of an open mind, and of tolerance,” said Sarah Novak, Class of 2018. “It was overwhelmingly sad to see how a physical space could cause so much tension.”

Herman echoed these sentiments and noted how the plethora of narratives they encountered deconstructed the notion of a clear oppressor and clear victim.

“Humanity is never black or white, and everyone’s experience is valid,” he concluded.

Jerusalem, Masada
Group photo atop Masada, one of the various prominent sites around Jerusalem which the students visited to widen their perspective on the political conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

Gaining an appreciation for the relationship between ancient history and current political problems, students were guided to try to view the experiences from various perspectives.

“It would be easy to walk away feeling hopeless and dejected from Jerusalem, as it can seem stuck in a bind of inherent tension and incompatible views,” shared Sarah. “Yet from talking to some people there, especially those who advocate forgiveness, progress and peace, I came away with a glimmer of hope.”

She added: “People are just people, and we are more similar than we might admit. This was something I could never have realised, had I not been there to see it with my own eyes.”


About Learning Across Boundaries (LABs)

LABs provide students with an opportunity for experiential learning in the global classroom. These LABs reinforce the importance and relevance of the curriculum by exploring intersecting themes in their broader contexts. Past LABS have included an intensive study of Japanese Buddhist philosophy, society and culture in Kyoto; a journey through Literary Burma exploring classic works from the colonial period through to contemporary works of non-fiction, poetry and film; and a trip studying biodiversity and conducting fieldwork in Somiedo National Park in northern Spain.