More American Jewish Students Studying the Arab World

Miriam Berger studied Arabic at Wesleyan University, lived twice as a student in Jordan, did thesis research in the West Bank and, after graduation, worked in Cairo. And like many of the Americans she has met each step of the way, she is Jewish.
"I don't see it as a contradiction at all," said Ms. Berger, 23, who grew up near Philadelphia where she attended a Jewish day school. "I grew up hearing so much about the Middle East, how it was this dangerous place we can't understand, but as I learned more, every day it felt like old ideas were being challenged, and I wanted to contribute to better understanding."

In the United States, colleges and universities are riding a two-decade surge in Middle East studies, reflecting that region's consistent pull on American economics and security. And while there are no definitive demographic data, students and professors say that in classrooms, or in undergraduate study-abroad and postgraduate fellowship programs in the Middle East and in Arabic, it is not unusual for one-quarter or more of the students to be Jewish.

These students say their interest grew because of their heritage, not in spite of it. They feel a desire, even a duty, to understand a region where Israel and the United States are enmeshed in longstanding conflicts, and to act as bridges between cultures -- explaining the Arab world to Americans, and America (and sometimes Jews) to Arabs.

"I felt I needed to see Palestinians as full, complete, sympathetic human beings," said Moriel Rothman, 24, who was born in Israel, grew up in Ohio and studied Arabic at Middlebury College. He now lives in Israel and works for an organization, Just Vision, that makes documentaries about conflict and cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis.

"The part of Judaism that resonates most strongly with me," he said, "is to love the stranger, remembering when we were strangers."

Some Americans go into Middle East studies because their families come from that part of the world, because they see it as a shrewd move for future business careers, or because they want to go into national security-related work. But more than almost any other academic field, professors and students say their interest stems from a concern for the politics of the region.

"What I hear from students from all backgrounds is they want to make things better, they want to make the world better, even if that sounds trite," said Osama Abi-Mershed, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "There are small us-versus-them factions among Arab and non-Arab students, but the hard-line positions do not lend themselves to this kind of study."

As a group, the Jewish students tend to be politically liberal; some are religiously observant, but few are religiously conservative. They generally sympathize with Arab points of view, and criticize both Israel's treatment of Palestinians and American involvement in the Middle East, although they remain committed to Israel's existence. Those views may make them at home in classrooms, but they can alienate them from friends and family members who have harsher views of the Arab world or fear for their safety in the Middle East.

"Just telling Jewish people that I was studying Arabic, I would get very, very negative reactions without even getting into the politics," said Eliana Fishman, 25, who majored in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth and studied in Morocco.

At the same time, Americans know that they remain, irrevocably, outsiders among Arabs, often viewed with suspicion. And after cheering the stirrings of the Arab Spring, the students admit to being disillusioned by its results, including the empowerment of Islamist factions.

Many American students, Jewish or not, insist that they felt safe in Arab countries, but recent violence has cut short study-abroad programs in several places. Andrew Pochter, a Jewish student at Kenyon College, was killed in June in a street protest in Alexandria, weeks after Christopher Stone, a professor at Hunter College, was stabbed in Cairo, reportedly targeted for being American.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Richard Perez-Pena
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