How I Came to Comprehend the Complexity in Conflict

Alumni Discussion with Dana Amir, Class of 2019 | Nov 19, 2019

What does it take for us to challenge our most deep-seated convictions? And what do we gain from doing so? For Dana Amir, a Minerva alumna from Israel, shifts in perspective came from exposure to the diverse opinions she discovered during Minerva’s global rotation. The lessons she learned empowered her to address, in her own way, a thorny conflict that defines a region. Today, we talk to Dana about how her undergraduate experience prepared her to create a remarkable program called In•sight Journeys.

What brought you to Minerva?

There’s a common path that Israelis follow: they serve in the military right after high school, then work for a few months to save money, then travel outside of Israel. I did that too; after my military service, I went to Asia for a year. When I was in India, I met an old friend who told me about a new university program that he’d recently heard of, called Minerva. Through its global residential rotation, Minerva would allow me to continue learning about new places, cultures, and people. While I thought my chances were slim, I was thrilled to be admitted. I knew it was a unique opportunity and I intended to make the most of it. And so, after eleven months in Asia, I returned home to Israel, and three months later, I landed in San Francisco.

When you look back, what is your impression of the Dana from 2015? What are some of the things that have changed you?

Today’s Dana is more confident. Back in 2015, I had the worst imposter syndrome — I didn’t think I belonged at Minerva, and I felt that soon I would be discovered and sent back home. Now, I can look back and say that the challenges Minerva throws at you make you stronger and more capable. I learned to deal with so many kinds of problems and discovered my own strengths and weaknesses. I also learned that asking for help is a strength in itself. I relied on my classmates and the Minerva community throughout my four years and will cherish the friends I have made here for the rest of my life.

Now that you have graduated, how do you look back on the last four years?

Something incredible happened in San Francisco in that first year. At the time, there was a wave of violence all over Israel. I had started to read news covering the happenings in Israel, not only in Hebrew but also in English and the latter were a lot more critical of Israel than the articles in Hebrew. It was almost like reading two different stories!

I also met classmates, who were outspoken against Israel. I was fascinated by it because my first reaction was, “Oh my god. This is my home. I have to protect it.” I fought back against my instinct to point out what I perceived to be superficial or oversimplified understandings of the conflict and pressed myself to be rational. The divergent narratives and opinions I heard gave me a chance to question my own long-held beliefs.

In San Francisco, I also saw different ways of being Jewish abroad. I met with Jewish communities that were practicing Judaism in an open, liberal way, which I related to much more than the orthodoxy that controls religious life in Israel. I think that these early experiences really opened my eyes and my mind to be more critical of my home.

I’m saying this in the context of the program I built and how Minerva contributed to me being more politically aware of the injustices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

What does critical thinking mean to you, in the context of Israel? How do you distinguish critical thinking from being critical?

On a personal level, I was exposed to content and opinions that contradicted the stories I was brought up to believe, which presupposed the correctness of the Israeli side, by justifying and legitimizing Israel’s policies and culture. The exposure to other views made me reevaluate the most fundamental “truths” about myself — and that process was scary.

Minerva also gave me tools to evaluate the claims, policies, and rhetoric of politicians and other public figures in my country in a way that made me able to test their validity for myself. This process resulted in me having a clearer political stance based on data and research, and not just on a herd mentality.

What is the origin of In•sight Journeys, the program that you created?

The initial idea started the summer before Minerva. I met someone who was a part of the public policy master’s program at Harvard, which had a tradition of organizing policy trips to Israel for its Kennedy School students. The trip had a pro-Israel agenda and showcased Israeli approaches to dealing with policy issues.

While I appreciated the essence of these trips, I felt they ought to have a nonpartisan agenda. I was compelled to create an unbiased trip for my classmates, with whom I wished to explore diverse approaches to conflict management and resolution in the region.

I started the process of brainstorming, asking questions like, “What can this trip be that will speak to my Minerva classmates?” I realized that the trip might even allow Minerva students from across classes to meet. I thought we could use the language of our first-year Complex Systems course to analyze what is happening on the ground. It was an opportunity to dissect the conflict from academic, emotional, social, economic, and psychological angles. These multiple lenses allowed a nuanced understanding of the numerous layers of the conflict, particularly the effects on Israelis and Palestinians, and the role of other nations in the conflict.

Eventually, the trip became the core of my final Capstone project at Minerva. I saw it as an incredible opportunity to complete a project on a topic that I care about. So I just did it. I mean, I didn’t just do it; it was a tough process of finding funds and speakers, shaping the value proposition, and undertaking my personal exploration of how to overcome my own biases as an Israeli Jew who is not living in Israel full time. So there were a lot of questions to answer and things to balance.

You talk about using the shared language of Minerva to foster nuanced discussions about complexity, ethics, and conflict. How would you explain that language to those who aren’t from Minerva and what about it did you find to be helpful in facilitating those discussions?

Our common language is based on a set of Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts, or HCs, which are tools and frameworks we use to analyze, understand, and work within different scenarios. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the HCs allowed us to break down a complex phenomenon into more specific components. For example, we asked questions, like “what are the secondary and tertiary effects of a certain policy?” “What are the power dynamics when it comes to public support or condemnation?” “How does the conflict affect society on different levels: individuals, groups, governments?” “How can we break down the conflict into its different facets?” (Hint: there are more than two sides.)

In what ways did you mobilize support and resources from your friends, family, and the wider community?

I started with a short survey to gauge how many Minerva students would be interested in participating. Forty-five people responded positively and I thought, “That’s a decent-sized bus!”

Then, I initiated a conversation with an organization that supports Israeli students, who organize trips to Israel. At first, they were hesitant to support an undergraduate student from a non-Ivy League school, but we built a strong relationship over time and they ended up being one of the major funders.

I got a lot of support inside Minerva, too. I sought input on the content from my Capstone advisor Professor Leanne Chukoski, as well as Professor Tomer Perry, an Israeli knowledgeable about the conflict. I discussed troubleshooting strategies with members of Minerva’s senior team. I also had conversations with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists to refine my plans.

Israeli students from Minerva helped to coordinate the production and speakers. They curated readings to equip participants with the context and held preparatory sessions on Forum, Minerva’s digital learning platform. This felt like any other Minerva class, except that the focus was on understanding the power dynamics in, history of, and proposed solutions to the conflict.

Then, through Minerva events, I met other supporters who were incredibly helpful in making this project a reality. One I met at Consequent became an integral part of building the program — it simply could not have happened without his help. Minerva’s network is incredible.

You spent the summer interning in the U.S. Congress to prepare for this program. Tell us more about the internship and why it was important for you?

New Story Leadership brings young, emerging leaders, Israelis and Palestinians, together for a seven-week program that has three themes: public speaking and storytelling, facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and an internship in Congress.

I saw New Story Leadership as a great way to explore how the U.S. legislative branch influences the reality back in Israel and a rare opportunity for me to meet Palestinians my age — this is nearly impossible back home because of the current policy of division between the two societies. How absurd is that?! We had to go all the way to the U.S. to talk!

I approached my time in D.C. as a chance to get input from Palestinians about the program I had designed and to raise financial aid funds to offer my participants. I also met people through whom I found the majority of volunteer speakers for my program. My time there was truly invaluable.

Tell us about In•sight Journeys.

In•sight Journeys was a seven-day exploration of religion, narratives, borders, separation, and coexistence in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Tel Aviv.

Starting in the contentious city of Jerusalem, the group set out to understand the religious and historical context of the fight for ownership of this land. We visited holy sites and met with academics, journalists, and policymakers. We heard from young Palestinian journalists, who shared stories about the implications of raising voices in a hyperpolarized media. We also learned about the geopolitics of Jerusalem in the context of a division-based solution.

In the West Bank, we met with Palestinian activists practicing nonviolent action and settlers with diverse political agendas, including those who want to share the land in peace. We proceeded to Tel Aviv to discuss its symbolism, liberalism, and political activism. There, we had a panel of activists, one of whom was from an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict.

From reframing the issue based on data to dissolving the oversimplified dichotomies of the narrative surrounding it, participants walked away with a deeper understanding of the conflict and its diverse stakeholders. One participant said that the program helped her move beyond identifying the “right” sides, toward an understanding of the truths for all sides, even if these truths seem to be contradictory.

What are your future aspirations for the program, participants, and affecting change?

One of the speakers, who was the former ambassador of Israel to the U.N., said, “If you want to think out of the box, you should first know what’s in the box very well.” Resolving the conflict was most certainly not a part of the scope of my program. Instead, I hoped participants would build empathy for all sides of the conflict by practicing active listening. In the future, I hope that In•sight Journeys will become a new tradition, where Minerva students and alumni meet for week-long, immersive experiences in various countries that have been through conflict. I want to shed light on stories that live in the dark. Students who want to lead such programs in their home countries, reach out and let’s make it happen!

If you were inspired by Dana's story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.