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October 18, 2013 1:13 pm

More American Jews Choose to Study Arab World, Results Vary

avatar by Zach Pontz

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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.”

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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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  • Fortune

    I LEARNED ARABIC FOR TWO REASONS, NOT IN ANY ORDER.

    1. BUSINESS, AND

    2. SO I COULD UNDERSTAND WHAT IS BEING SAID AROUND ME BOTH BY ARABS AND JEWS WHO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE.

  • Lynne T

    It’s not as though MEMRI, the organization founded by an Israeli former intelligence agent, isn’t recognized for the excellence of its translations of media pieces in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi or that a British Jew, Bernard Lewis, is a noted scholar of the middle east and, of course, speaks Arabic.

  • Al Talena

    American Jews think that all they have to do tell Arabs “We love everyone so love us” and everyone will then sit around the campfire and sing ‘kumbayana. No difference from the American leftists of past who militantly demonstrated for every ethnic and national group but felt that is wrong for Jews to be nationalistic; Jews should be internationalists.
    The palistinians know the naivete of American Jewish liberals and whine to them. Aftrall, the American Jewish liberal/left believe every propaganda ploy of the palistinians; afterall, would the arabs (especially the palitinians) lie?

  • Dov Meir

    A Jewish student studying middle east has to take in account:
    a. He has not enough knowledge about Jews and Judaism.
    b. He has not enough knowledge about the History of the middle east generally and especially about the land of Israel.
    c. The majority of his professors are haters of Jews Judaism and Israel. He has no tools to criticize what he study from them and he understand very well that if he claims something against a “fact” idea of these professors he will suffer in his graduation process.
    So, I will suggest to every Jew who wants to study Middle East to invest at least a year in Yeshiva before entering to the snake caves in the University.

  • Kris Kristian

    I think it would be a good education for Israeli schools to have Arabic as a compulsory subjest.
    It can only make it better for Israelis to understand what is being said in Arabic and English.
    Learning Arabic could also be a means of security for Israelis. Many Arabs speak Hebrew.

  • Ilbert Phillips

    Secular Jews are particularly perplexing. They intuitively express some Jewish values without understanding how those values came into their consciousness and the role those values play in the Jewish World the Western world (Europe and the Americas) in general. In short, they know nothing about their ancestors’ religion. Further, the value they model their lives on, “tikun olam,” while a favorite mantra of Liberal Judaism, it is a concept inextricably entwined with the ongoing study of Torah. Take away the study of Torah and you lose the uniqueness of Judaism and “tikun olam” becomes just another empty political slogan competing with all of the other empty political slogans in the ether.

  • Bernard Ross

    american jews remind me of pre holocaust german jews

  • ilana schulz

    The problem is that they think they know a lot of our culture and history.They arrive to this courses without any capacity for distinguish what is true and what is indoctrination.Its really sad that someone want to study other cultures before knowing her own.

  • nelson marans

    With the current revisionism of history now occurring in our universities, I expect the next goal of many Anti-Israel and anti-semitic professors will be the denial of the Holocaust. Our youth is being duped and being turned into propagandists for the Arab world and particularly for the Palestinian Arabs.

  • aall55

    The only positive is that now they can understand the language of their enemies .

  • David Most

    What most, if not all, these well-meaning young liberal Jews miss is the deep seated anti-Jew enmity embedded in the Koran. On top of that they sweep under the rug the years of intense propagandizng of the Arab young.
    Armed with their shiny new ABs, MSs, and even PhDs they believe they can “talk to” and “reach” the very Muslims who want to kill them and their Israeli cousins. But the “tikun olum” idea is so strong they must go and prove that “communication is still possible”.
    POTUS expressed similar thoughts only to be slapped around by the very Muslims he had reached out to touch.
    Is there a solution to the problem? Yes, but it must originate with the Arabs/Muslims themselves who first must move away from the hatred embedded by Muhammad in the heart of the Koran. Until then we’ll continue to have generations of Arab kids brought up to believe Mickey Mouse in an “Israeli spy” out to kill them.

  • I. Breshinski

    Jews learning Arabic is seen as a miracle. It really is not. Israeli students always studied Arabic which is part of state school curriculum. It is same as Anglophones learn French and Francophones learn English. Israeli students learn Palestinian poetry and history. Arab Israeli teachers teach is Jewish schools and Jewish teachers work in Arab Israeli schools. There is no teachings in Israeli schools which is meant to indoctrinate anti Palestinians sentiments. Do not forget that 700.000 Jewish refugees came from Arab speaking countries and brought with them their unique culture influenced by Arabic. Arab departments in Israeli universities are very strong. Many Arabs learn Hebrew. Arabic is the second language in Israel and official documents, street signs etc. are bilingual. In an interview from Egypt on Israeli TV the Egyptian journalist was speaking perfect Hebrew and addressed the fact that many in Egypt study Hebrew. http://youtu.be/g5DjzgOkGdQ

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