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October 18, 2013 1:13 pm

More American Jews Choose to Study Arab World, Results Vary

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avatar by Zach Pontz

An Egyptian food market.

More Americans than ever are taking up studies of the Arab world and many of them are Jewish, The New York Times reports.

While lacking definitive demographic data, students and professors tell The Times 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.

On the whole, in 1990, fewer than 3,600 students were learning Arabic at American colleges, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association. In 2002, there were about 10,600 — still only about half as many as were taking ancient Greek. By 2009, that number had jumped to more than 35,000.

“I don’t see it as a contradiction at all,” Miriam Berger, 23, told the newspaper. “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.”

These students say they desire–even see it as a duty–to understand such an important region, 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,”  Moriel Rothman, 24, who was born in Israel, grew up in Ohio and studied Arabic at Middlebury College, told The Times. He now lives in Israel and works for an organization, Just Vision, that makes documentaries about conflict and cooperation between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.

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

According to The Times, “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.”

Often, these views are welcome on college campuses, but can be a point of contention at home.

“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.

Though the idea of going to an Arab country and bridging a divide is romantic in nature, the reality isn’t always so pleasant.

Many Jews avoid revealing their religious identity in the Middle East, believing that it would put them at greater risk; many refused to speak with The Times for fear of retaliation upon visiting the region. According to these same people, having no religion is even more dangerous.

“One doesn’t always want to admit to being Jewish in the Muslim world, but atheism is generally beyond comprehension, beyond acceptance,” said Zachary Lockman, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at New York University, who is Jewish, but not religious.

And it’s not always easy to overcome the bias directed at the U.S. and Israel. The Times writes: “The same young people who contend that Americans have simplistic views of the Arab world say the problem is worse in the other direction: grinding poverty, lack of education and government-controlled news media often translate to cartoonish images of the United States and Israel.”

“I grew up with the idea of ‘tikkun olam,'” a Hebrew phrase meaning “heal the world,” said Joseph Pearl, 24, who studied Arabic at Dartmouth. “I would look at the whole Arab-Israeli situation and think that’s only going to be healed by greater understanding.”

But after five months in Morocco, studying and working for a nonprofit group, he said, “I decided I was pretty naïve about my ability to have a positive impact.”

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