Travel to the Middle East With Flathead-Based Group

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – The regions where Sam and Ruth Neff have traveled over the last 25 years aren’t your typical list of vacation destinations: the Soviet Union, Cuba, Iran. All are characterized by strained, to put it lightly, relationships with the United States.

But the Neffs see their travel as a way to bridge rifts between different countries through what they describe as “citizen diplomacy,” a way of exploring the commonalities between people who, more often than not, may be inclined to focus on differences. As such, the name of their group, Neighbors East and West, is apt.

“People are always so interested to talk to Americans, and want to practice their English and just extend hospitality,” Ruth said of last year’s trip to Iran, with a group of more than 20, many of whom were Montanans. “People would bend over backwards to help you.”

In meeting Iranians, Ruth recalled the talk turning to politics, and found people critical of both their own leadership, as well as that of the U.S.

“But, they said, ‘People always love each other,’” she recalled.

Since 1986, Sam and Ruth have been leading trips to regions not often seen by American tourists, and they have the anecdotes to show for it, from helping to establish a sister-city program in the Soviet Union during the 1980s to meeting, in Cuba, the man who was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Through Neighbors East and West, the Neffs are now planning a 13-day trip to Israel and Palestine in June, with space available for anyone interested in traveling to the region. The trip’s goal is to provide participants with an informed perspective on the conflict there, and efforts to achieve peace. But there will also be ample opportunities to visit the region’s historic and religious sites.

“It’ll be different, and it’ll be new, but the main thing is we just have to listen,” Sam said. “We will probably learn an awful lot more than we think we know right now.”

“I think it will be encouraging for them to see Americans that are concerned,” Ruth added.

The trip will include visits to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus, including meetings with Palestinian officials and a visit to Bethlehem University. The itinerary continues on to Israel with two nights each in Nazareth and Jerusalem.

Tony Bing, an emeritus professor at Indiana’s Earlham College, where Sam formerly taught physics, will be leading the trip. According to the Neffs, Bing has visited the region more than 35 times. The trip runs from June 13-June 26, with accommodation at three-star hotels, transportation, English-speaking guides, and overnight home stays in Bethlehem and Bil’in. The cost is $1,400, airfare not included.

When asked why travel to Israel and Palestine, Ruth’s answer was succinct: “Because that’s the most important place.”

For more information on the trip, contact Sam and Ruth Neff at samn@earlham.edu or 406-862-1629. An itinerary and applications are available at http://neighborseastandwest.org.

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