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Rector student spends summer with Palestinians

| Sunday, May 6, 2012, 3:51 p.m.

Judd Kennedy rides the gondola of what he describes as the "world's longest cable car system beneath sea level." The city below is historic Jericho.

A seven-week study trip to Israel's West Bank was an eye-opener for Judd Kennedy.

The 20-year-old sophomore at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., attended Birzeit University in Ramallah this summer, where he immersed himself in the Palestinian Arabic studies program.

"I had a revelation in the fact that Palestinians are not the terrorists they are made out to be in the West, nor are they haters of Israel," said Kennedy, the son of Patsy and Paul Kennedy, of Rector. "Sometimes we don't see the Palestinian side because no one is willing to take them seriously because they have a reputation of being terrorists."

Kennedy, a Middle Eastern studies and religion major, was awarded a $2,500 grant from the Charles Center at William and Mary to attend Birzeit University. He had to study Arabic for a year and establish his own contacts in the West Bank and at the university before leaving the United States on June 20.

"I also had to make contact with native Palestinians and learn how I would go from Jerusalem to the checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank. Different routes were inaccessible, and some of the checkpoints were closed," Kennedy said.

His parents were naturally concerned while he was abroad.

"Part of his research project at the university was to post an online journal of his experiences," said Patsy Kennedy. "We made arrangements that on the days he didn't post, he had to call us or we would call him. This trip made us nervous, because he wasn't traveling in a group but on his own."

While his parents were fearful of his safety, Kennedy fell in love with the Middle East and its people.

"They are so loving. There was never any hostility directed at me," said Kennedy. "Everyone wants to talk to you. When you go to a store to buy something, you have to sit down and chat with the proprietor, have coffee and get to know him before he will let you purchase anything."

His most memorable day in Israel was a trip to Jenin in the Northern Province. Kennedy and his traveling companion for the day met Dr. Khalid, the brother of the No. 2 man in the Palestinian National Authority , and his son. They traveled to Jenin and attended a formal engagement ceremony where Kennedy was treated as a guest of honor.

"Once we got to the bride's house, we had to shake hands with all the male members of her family, about 70 men," Kennedy said. "Afterward, I went to an actual wedding where I received two marriage proposals. We also toured Jenin. It was a really great experience."

Meanwhile, back in Rector, the family set a clock to Israel time, eight hours ahead. They also began their own understanding of Israel and the Palestinians.

"We just automatically thought the people who live in the West Bank are Muslim, but there is a large group of Christians," said Paul Kennedy. "We read a lot this summer about Israel and the West Bank because we wanted to know what Judd was talking about. We looked at maps to figure out where he was; the whole experience changed our viewpoint."

Judd Kennedy said that, despite the friendliness of the people, a pall hangs over the Palestinians.

"There is the constant fear of suicide bombers, which is prevalent on every street. And you see a hopelessness because they are being occupied and feel they will never be removed from the yoke of Israeli occupation," Kennedy said.

More travel plans are on the young man's agenda. He will apply for a Monroe scholarship through the honors society at William and Mary to go to Europe to study the effects of Orientalism on western society. He's also hoping to receive several National Security Exchange scholarships to study in Syria, Lebanon or Jordan. After graduate school he plans on working in the Middle East.

"I'm starting to develop a strong interest in human rights. I want to be involved with the people of the Middle East on a one-on-one connection," Kennedy said.

Those interested in reading Kennedy's online journal about his West Bank experiences can log on at www.livejournal.com/users/judd_in_birzeit/ .

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