Growing up in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Carlos Elias Campos remembers meeting exactly one Jewish person: a 12-year-old exchange student from Sweden. With so few Jews and the Venezuelan government’s often strained relationship with Israel, Elias Campos knew he was not getting a full picture of the Jewish state or the Jewish people. So one of the first things he did upon arriving at Northeastern in the fall of 2013 was enroll in Prof. Lori Lefkovitz’s freshman Honors seminar, “Bedrooms and Battlefields: Sex, Gender, and Ethnicity in the Hebrew Bible.” Immediately fascinated, Elias Campos decided to pursue a minor in Jewish Studies, despite the already formidable challenges of double majoring in Economics and International Affairs. As he says, “In the end, I realized that when you have something you really like, you should keep a spot for that.”
Although his entry point to Jewish Studies was a class on the Bible, Elias Campos was particularly drawn to the modern period. Prof. Lefkovitz’s class always made connections between the ancient and modern worlds, he notes, and it piqued his interest in the modern land of Israel. Being from a developing country, Elias Campos was intrigued by Israel’s rapid progress, especially in view of the longstanding persecution the Jews have experienced. Could Israel be a model for developing countries like his own, he wondered?
Believing strongly that “if you want to do something about international affairs, you cannot be in an office writing a paper; you have to go to hotspots and know what is going on there,” Elias Campos decided to travel to Israel last summer with Prof. Lefkovitz’s Dialogue of Civilizations program, “Contemporary Israel and its Complexities.”
Entering Israel, he was immediately struck by the dramatic contrasts between old and new, unfamiliar and familiar. “I had this feeling of ‘I’m entering one of the most important ancient places in the world, but at the same time I kind of feel in America because it’s very developed,’” he remembers. “The infrastructure, the security, how everything works. I had this balance where I felt like I’m in the Western world but at the same time I’m in a holy place, a very ancient place.” After a few days, he felt like he’d been there forever, welcomed by the diverse Israeli community. “They make you feel at home,” he reflects.
About a week after the students arrived in Israel, conflict broke out between Israel and Gaza. Elias Campos felt afraid the first time alarms went off. He was quickly reassured by how Israelis continued to go about their daily business and how well the Israeli defense systems functioned. “You see that they trust the system, they trust the Iron Dome, they trust that the government will project them,” he observes. “So I would say that that energy in a way transferred to us.” After the group moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, however, he sensed a difference, with both Israelis and foreigners more nervous, which he attributes more to the impact of Western media than to any actual increased danger.
Nine days before the students were scheduled to return to the United States, the decision was made to end the trip early. Despite his disappointment at not being able to travel to the north of Israel, Elias Campos feels that his experience on the Dialogue had a significant impact on his view of Israel and his understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“It was a beautiful time,” he reflects. “Yes, there are differences between the Palestinian and the Jewish community, but at the same time, you see that as a group Israelis do not hate the Palestinians and the Palestinians don’t hate the Israelis. In order to be able to talk about that I need to know the culture better.”
After he graduates from Northeastern, Elias Campos plans to get a masters degree in economics and then return to Venezuela to help in the reconstruction of the country. He looks forward to bringing his knowledge of the Israeli political system and social structure to bear on that work.
And next summer, Elias Campos and his family are planning a family trip to Israel.