Epstein explores familial ties to Israel, tackles refugee debate firsthand

Alexandra Lisa | Staff Writer

Issues overseas may be closer to home than many in Mason realize.

Struggles facing the Middle East have been a topic of heated discussion for years, growing more controversial with the recent inclusion of Syrian refugees fleeing war-ridden areas. While many are willing to give their opinions on the topic in discussion, few can say they have had an opportunity to see it first-hand, or that it has a direct tie to them as an individual.

Sophomore Sarah Epstein, recently got a chance to witness these issues for herself when she took an educational trip with her synagogue to Israel the summer of her eighth grade year. Epstein feels a connection to the country, as it ties to her ethnic background and her family history. Most of the nation is modernized and heavily populated, but when the group traveled through the Golan Heights, an unstable region dividing Syria and Israel, there was a drastic change. Epstein said due to its war history and close proximity to Syria, the area has long been vulnerable to danger.

“Syria is right across the way; you can see it,” Epstein said. “There are no clouds, no mountains, you can just look across this empty, open land and see it. It isn’t hard, it isn’t unheard of, for a stray bomb to fly off target and hit The Heights. There are other things that have come about because of the tensions between the countries, like minefields in the city. There were minefields lining walking paths, there are just signs on the side of the road that say ‘Warning: mines’ in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and if you wandered too far, you could potentially be blown up.”

It is not only what Epstein has seen in The Heights, but also what she has heard which signify tensions between the two nations.

“There was an explosion, something that sounded like a bomb, that could clearly be heard from 40 miles away,” Epstein said. “And then a couple minutes later, from behind us, you hear another explosion, closer and louder. Our tour guide said, ‘That’s the Israeli government practicing, as a warning to Syria.’ They send response explosions whenever a bomb or something gets too close, to warn Syria that, if they get hit, they will attack back. It’s scary not just because of what might happen if an explosion gets too close, but also because you have to know that explosion went somewhere. We were hearing them blow each other up.”

Since Israel seized the Golan Heights, it has been a place of high risk. Though both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a United Nations observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since its signing, it remains dangerous for the citizens living there, as well as for tourists who have to travel through it. Necessary military action has to be taken to ensure the safety of those inside, which is why the bus holding Epstein and her synagogue was continuously followed by a patrol car as they traveled through the heights.

Epstein said the military is highly involved in most of Israel, which often shines a negative light on the nation.

“Everyone has to be involved in the military,” Epstein said. “In the US, because there are so many people, we’re used to having a military of volunteers only. But there aren’t enough people in Israel to do that, and because Israel is between a lot of countries that have consistently attacked the country, it has to have a large military. It wouldn’t be as large as what they need if there weren’t drafts, because it’s so dangerous. When you talk to people, everyone knows someone who’s died serving.”

Epstein said Israel is generally depicted in a villainous light, not just because of the heavy drafts put in place, but also because of the limited role they play in housing refugees fleeing from the Syrian Wars.

“Again, every country surrounding Israel has a bad relationship with it,” Epstein said. “That doesn’t exclude Syria. Israel does what they can, they have hospitals on the boarders to help people who are injured. But if they were to take a side in the war, there would be serious after effects, they’d be dragged right into the war. It’s hard for them to take serious action.”

The Syrian refugee issue is one which Epstein said she has a complicated opinion about.

“It’s definitely hard, because my people were in the same situation too,” Epstein said. “There were boats of Jewish families that fled from Europe during World War II, and they were sent back when they came to the US, and they suffered in concentration camps because of it. So of course I think there is a responsibility to house these people trying to get away. But, I say that, and then I turn around and say that Israel can’t afford to house (Syrians) because it’s dangerous. And there’s a difference between the US and Israel’s situations because of distance and size and power, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hypocritical.”

Epstein is trying to get accepted to attend a second, three-week trip this upcoming summer which would visit sites in both Israel and concentration camps in Europe. Though she has never lived there, Epstein said she feels she has to build a connection with Israel, since it is typically seen as a Jewish nation, and she is Jewish in both religion and ethnicity. Epstein wants to know what the origin of her culture is like first hand, especially since a single trip has already helped her to see the importance of understanding issues across an ocean.

“Distance, a lot of times, makes a situation out to be something we shouldn’t care about,” Epstein said. “But because I’ve been there, I don’t know, it just makes it harder to look away. And I don’t know that I want looking away to be easy again.”