When congratulating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his reelection last week, President Trump also suggested that Netanyahu’s win improved the chances of establishing peace in a region long troubled by conflict. According to experts quoted and published in the New York Times, Al Jazeera News, and the Council on Foreign Relations, the actual chances of reaching a resolution to the decadeslong regional conflict under a government even more rightwing than the previous one are far more slim than the president suggests. With no clear path to peace in sight in Israel as in so many places around the world, it may be hard not to read the news with a sense of hopelessness. In the midst of all this conflict and complexity, it seems right to end this semester with the story of a Hope College graduate visiting campus this week, who has managed to make an impact both in the Middle East and in the US: Mary Neznek. Neznek got her first upclose perspective on IsraeliPalestinian conflict early in her career. After graduating, she worked at a YMCA school along the Israeli border in Lebanon. “I was teaching in what became a war zone with students of relative privilege and students from minority groups who lived in abject poverty,” she told the Anchor.
Later on, she would be involved in facilitating informal meetings between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers when it was illegal for them to speak to one another. Now, she consults on nonviolent conflict resolution and writes to bring awareness to the problems with the US’s funding and support of military action in the Middle East. As she explained in the interview, US involvement and spending in the Middle East has been detrimental not only to the region but to the country’s ability to meet its basic domestic needs. Neznek’s career might not have gone in this direction if not for her Hope education. “So many of my choices were developed in the social justice and international studies programs I had the benefit of participating in,” she said. Her three travel experiences in particular helped form her worldview and sense of purpose. The first was a trip through the rural South, where she witnessed the injustices of segregation. Later, she had an opportunity to study abroad at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon.
On a third trip, a visit to Washington, D.C. in 1969, she was able to watch a major protest against the Vietnam War. Another Hope graduate, A.J. Muste, was a key organizer of this antiwar movement. “These travel experiences broadened my world view,” said Neznek. “I was never the same, but I also realized how much political literacy in international and domestic affairs I needed to learn.” Neznek’s work has not been limited to her efforts in the Middle East. She has become an expert in educating children who have experienced trauma in both Lebanon and the US. In addition to her teaching, Neznek has also been a supporter of disability rights. She joined a national coalition that lobbied successfully for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and she has worked to help bring educators to the Middle East to teach the latest methods to educators of students who are deaf or hearing impaired. When the news becomes overwhelming and depressing, Neznek’s story can offer a reminder to Hope students that they can carry their education into a troubled world to work for good.