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Aquinas Student Brandon Heritier Experiences Israel Firsthand

Today’s world is one of headlines and renewed public consciousness; what were once local crises have been placed on a global stage, often as the object of news or political rhetoric. However, understanding such issues often requires personal examination, rather than passive acceptance of popular commentaries. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the object of interest to western countries for decades. In January 2013, Aquinas College junior Brandon Heritier embarked on a journey to Israel, in order to experience the reality of life within this region of pilgrimage and unrest.

Heritier, a political science, math, and Spanish major, is extensively involved in the Aquinas community. He has served as the chair of Student Senate, student chair of the AQ Fund, president of the Pre-Law club, and is a member of several other organizations. “When I go into something,” he said, “I don’t view it as a resume builder, but as how I’m serving the Aquinas community. Community is probably one of the biggest aspects that I love about Aquinas. You can meet someone and know their name, and they’ll know yours, after the first meeting, and the likelihood of running into them again is enormous compared to some bigger schools.”

While already interested in Middle Eastern government, Heritier was presented with an opportunity to experience Israeli politics firsthand, through a program called Caravan for Democracy. “I found it through a bit of serendipity. I was on Facebook, of all things! Right there on the side, ‘do you want to go to Israel for ten days?’ So I clicked on it, researched the site and what they did, and it matched perfectly with what I had done. I had taken Middle Eastern politics the year before, and I had researched Israel’s democracy and government system. I thought it would be an awesome firsthand experience.”

The trip was organized by the Jewish National Fund, known for their environmental work in Israel and the sponsorship of birthright trips. “This trip was meant for non-Jewish students,” Heritier said, “to get them a feel for Israel, to see what goes on on the ground, what happens in the government, and what it’s like to live there.” The trip lasted ten days, from December 31, 2012 to January 10, 2013.

Upon arrival in Israel, Heritier realized that the situation was far from black and white. He found the country filled with complex political and social tensions, divided over the very “reality” in which they lived. “If you’re in the northern half, you honestly would never realize anything was wrong; you could really mistake it for a very hilly Florida. We went into Golan Heights, the old Syrian Territory; there’s Israeli shops everywhere, people were out and about shopping and living life without a problem. Even in Jerusalem, they weren’t hesitant to go out at 2 a.m. However, when you got into the south, it was a little bit different story. We actually went into Serrot, which is less than a mile away from Gaza. It’s a town where every thirty yards there’s a bomb shelter, because in a total of fifteen seconds a rocket fired from Gaza can hit Serrot.” The contrast between the north and south, between shopping malls and bomb shelters, was certainly a striking experience.

Having experienced Middle Eastern politics firsthand, Heritier returned to Aquinas with a new perspective on leadership, one he says will positively affect his efforts at the College. “In all honesty, it makes you realize that certain things are more complicated than they appear on the outside, you sometimes have to dig deeper into an issue so, as a leader, you need to see what tensions are there and try to solve them as best as possible.”

While reflecting upon his time in Israel, Heritier realized that the trip was rooted in many of the core values held by Aquinas. “The biggest thing that stood out to me was prayer, when I visited the Holy Sepulcher Church. The church is shared by six different sects of Christianity, and there’s actually a lot tension there. But even though you have all of these different factions fighting over this place and who’s responsible for maintaining it, in the end people just came to pray in the church.” Heritier, a Roman Catholic, sat in the church with a young woman of the Greek Orthodox tradition. It became apparent as they discussed their religious differences that, despite their disagreements, they were still united in prayer at this place of pilgrimage. “I suppose that brings it back to Aquinas; it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re still an accepted and valued member here.”

Looking to the future, Heritier admits that his trip has definitely impacted his decisions. “I still plan to go into law, but I’ve been looking into Notre Dame’s peace studies program as a dual degree with law. I’m also looking into the possibility of doing an exchange program with Tel-Aviv University. So I’m definitely looking to go back. The experience was phenomenal, and I would love to go again.”

Though Heritier is now an active member of the Aquinas community, he still remembers being a new student, trying to find his way at the school. He recommends that students become involved early on, and gives some advice on where to start. “Just ask! There’s always somebody who is willing to take someone on for help with projects. They’re always willing to have someone in their club or organization. There’s always someone willing to have you as part of their community. And then, even if you are involved with every possible thing, narrow it down to things that you like. It’s too easy to get spread out at Aquinas, but it is very easy to find that one niche where you fit perfectly and grow from it.”