One night while taking a break from excavating and researching in Israel, a group of VCU students were outside when they saw what appeared to be flares go straight into the sky. When those flares began to curve in their direction and a teacher ordered for them to run inside, senior religious studies and psychology major Zavi Harman ran for safety with the others.
Harman was one of 18 VCU students who returned home from a study abroad trip to Israel earlier than anticipated because of escalated tensions between Palestine and Israel.
While in Israel, the group worked at a site called Tel Lachish where they excavated for two and a half weeks, attended lectures and took youth heritage tours.
The students were not scheduled to return until June 18, but left almost a week in advance making it the the first time a VCU study abroad group ended their to trip to Israel earlier than planned.
“I just went outside to see what was happening and all of a sudden I hear kind of a pop sound and I could feel this blast of wind just run across my entire body […] and that was kind of scary for me,” Harman said.
“At first I didn’t pay attention to it, I was kind of avoiding reading the news. I was just (there) to do the dig, but after a while you just really couldn’t avoid it because you were living it,” he added.
Harman said he was inclined to go on the trip after getting to know religious studies professor Jon Waybright who led the group of 18 students on his annual trip to Israel. Waybright said though they saw the rockets, they felt safe and were even alerted by the Prime Minister’s office it was safe to remain in their camp.
“But once it becomes less about archaeology and more about a political situation is when I decided to pull the plug,” Waybright said.
Waybright said the group was located in southern Israel away from the Gaza Strip but they still witnessed rockets from their location. He said it was a collective decision between Hebrew University, suggestions from Israeli security officials, the VCU Study Abroad office and himself to end the study abroad trip earlier than scheduled.
Waybright said that even after teaching and traveling to Israel since 1988, he still does not fully understand the historic, religious and cultural dimensions of the conflict.
As an undergraduate at VCU while studying ancient history and Egyptology through his religious studies, Waybright said he was encouraged to try an excavation. His experience influenced him to bring students along to receive credit when he began teaching.
As of press time, Waybright is unsure of what will happen to the summer 2015 trip.
“(The conflict has) been dreadful, it’s been tragic, but it’s a part of life, it’s a part of the world and this is not the only place where this is happening,” Waybright said.
Wade Angeli, outreach assistant of the Education Abroad office, said students have been sent home early from study abroad trips for reasons such as health concerns for individuals but it is not common for whole groups to leave because of safety issues.
Angeli said because of Waybright’s experience in Israel, the office trusted him to make the decision on the early departure.
He added that the office does their best to ensure students are going to be safe in the conditions of the countries they visit and to prepare students if they know there are travel warnings.
Senior sociology major Russell Johnson said he enjoyed his trip and was disappointed to return early. Though he said he was never fearful for his own safety, seeing other people in the program distraught was hard for him.
“Being in Israel and actually seeing and hearing jets fly over, knowing that those jets were probably going off to bomb Gaza, that was a completely different experience,” Johnson said.
Senior and anthropology major Alexandra Buchanan planned to return home even before the program was canceled, but said seeing the residents around them not panicking made her less aprehensive.
“We’re really privileged to not live in a place where that sort of thing doesn’t happen and so it makes you feel more like a citizen of the world getting to live that way with other people,” Buchanan said.
Harman, Johnson and Buchanan all said they plan to get involved with political advocacy in regard to the conflict at school.
“I think people overlook the fact that there are so many peaceful people there who just want a reasonable solution,” Buchanan said.