CINCINNATI -- Influenced by his father's strong opinions on the subject, University of Cincinnati student Bashir Emlemdi grew up feeling pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
But when he visited Israel late last year, those feelings changed.
Emlemdi, who is running for UC student body president, was one of seven UC students who participated in Israel Uncovered, a 10-day trip to Israel sponsored by the David Project, a pro-Israel nonprofit based in Boston.
Eighteen UC students applied to go on the free trip -- more than at any school in the Midwest, said Rotem Ben-LuLu an Israel fellow at Hillel Cincinnati who helped select the UC delegation. The trip lasted from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5.
It was unique because it shows all aspects of Israel, exposing students to different aspects of Israeli society and viewpoints from both Jewish and non-Jewish leaders, said Jackie Congedo, public relations manager for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, which helped pay for the trip.
"The philosophy is that it gives students an opportunity to examine a complicated society and dynamic in a personal way, and it allows them to draw their own conclusions about it and gain an appreciation for the complexity of it," she said.
"They see places that are important not only to Jewish students, but they go together to places that are important to Christians and Muslims. We want them to see as much as possible of Israel … we're not hoping to direct them to a conclusion."
The organizers recruited students who are leaders on campus, and they aimed for a delegation that includes both those who are Jewish and non-Jews like Emlemdi, who's a Muslim.
He saw the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine on the site of Herod's Temple in the old city of Jerusalem, which he said was a major highlight. But on the same day, he also saw the Western Wall, one of Judaism's most sacred places, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity's most sacred spaces.
"The history I saw there was amazing," he said. "The buildings of (that) area are thousands of years old. … That really resonated with me."
He also participated in Shabbat service, a traditional Jewish Friday evening observance, with an Israeli family that welcomed him into their home. They talked about the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said, and were very curious about why he didn't share the opinion of some Muslims, who would never agree to spend time with Israelis.
He talked with people on both sides of the conflict, including a Palestinian who gives tours of Palestinian areas and a man who works with the Israeli army to build fences between Palestinian areas and Jewish areas.
Now, Emlemdi said, he still considers himself pro-Palestinian, but also pro-Israel.
"One thing I took away is that you don't have to be pro one thing (and) be anti another," he said.
Unfortunately, he didn't gain any insight into how to solve the conflict.
"That's the $1 million question," he said.
Another non-Jewish member of the delegation was Kiran Venkat, who as a Hindu doesn't have a dog in the Arab-Israeli fight. He was struck by how close the borders were, he said, with Jewish and Palestinian areas sometimes separated by a single backyard.
He had no ancestors killed in the Holocaust, he said, but he'll never forget visiting Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
"It just showed me how terrible that time period was … and how disturbing the stuff was that happened within the world itself," he said.
The trip gave him a craving to return to Israel and see what else there is to explore.
As an intern for the David Project, Ryan Kun's job was to recruit student leaders interested in going on the trip. It was the third time Kun, who is Jewish, had visited Israel, and he said this trip was unusual for the diversity of sites visited.
- Rahat, a Bedouin city of about 62,000 in the Southern District of Israel, one of the few Israeli cities without a majority Jewish population.
- Sderot, sometimes called the "bomb shelter capital of the world" because it has so many shelters – it's a frequent target of rockets and mortars from the nearby Gaza Strip. Even the playground had places children could duck into and be safe, Kun said.
- A kibbutz, or collective farm, in Northern Israel run by an Ethiopian Jew.
- Bethlehem, where the delegation visited the Church of the Nativity, which was built over the cave where tradition says Jesus was born.
- The Mount of the Beatitudes, where tradition says Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, a location by the Sea of Galilee that Kun found especially beautiful.
Although he's not a Christian, he said he could still feel that the place was special. Everyone on the trip had that feeling about some place they saw, he said, which he found amazing.
It shows that the trip did its job of showing Israel from all perspectives, he said.
"You find very few trips that don't have an agenda … that are simply trying to show what Israel is, and it's up to you to interpret it."