By Katy Savage
When rockets launched from the Gaza Strip of Palestine into Israel and violence escalated in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Mary Sobel was stunned by the amount of people who spoke in favor of Palestine.
Celebrities like Bella and Gigi Hadid, Palestinian descendants, posted their support on Instagram. It seemed to Sobel like everyone thought the issue was black and white — Israel was wrong and Palestine was right.
“I was really frustrated by how oversimplified it was,” Sobel said.
Sobel, 21, who grew up in Rutland, has aunts, uncles and cousins in Israel. Both her parents grew up in Israel before moving to the United States in the 1980s.
Her family, like everyone in Israel, lives within walking distance of a bomb shelter. If a siren sounds, they have one minute and 50 seconds to find safety. When her aunt, a school teacher, gets a threat at school, she presses a button which shields the windows with metal covering while students and teachers remain inside.
“How does my family live like this all the time?” Sobel said.
Sobel grew up going to Israel once a year. She said she had an elementary understanding of the conflict as a child. She decided to become an activist in college. Sobel is now a junior at the University of Vermont studying biology.
“Israel has always been a really special place of mine,” she said.
Sobel was one of 40 students selected through a highly competitive application process to participate in a fellowship through the Israel on Campus Coalition. The fellowship offers a half-year immersive educational experience that includes a trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Sobel and the other students recently returned from a 10-day trip where they met with politicians, entrepreneurs, activists and professionals working to mitigate the conflict, including Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum; Amir Hayek, the first Israeli ambassador to the UAE, and numerous high-tech executives and academics.
“Since the historic Abraham Accords were signed, the Middle East landscape has been changing on a weekly and daily basis with greater economic, security, technological, medical, and policy advances and cooperation than ever before,” said Jacob Baime, the CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition. “This immersive experience will help build a diverse network of thoughtful, intelligent and successful leaders who can help shape the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The trip was personal for Sobel. Both her grandparents are Holocaust survivors, though they never talk about their experience. “I think at the end of the day, most people want peace and it’s a difference between what the governments are doing and what the people want,” she said.
The students visited a community closest to the Gaza Strip. She said the people near Gaza are most impacted by the violence. They run to bomb shelters within 15 seconds of a siren.
“They’re always aware,” she said. “Many have PTSD.”
Sobel is using her experience to continue raising awareness about the issue. Sobel has brought Holocaust survivors to speak at her college.
She’s also working with the Legislator. The House and Senate passed a resolution last week designating Jan. 23–27 as the first annual Holocaust Education Week in Vermont.
Sobel and the Vermont Holocaust Memorial are pushing for a bill requiring Holocaust education in Vermont high schools. The bill was introduced in the last session but stalled.
“The legislation should be reintroduced soon,” Sobel said.