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Jewish Students Explore Arab Lands

August 12, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Jacob Arem spent a semester studying near Amman, Jordan, shown here.
While many of his peers were heading to traditional spring-break venues in Florida, 20-year-old Jacob Arem wasn't having any of that. Sure, he was looking for some sand and sun, but he was focusing on something a bit more off the beaten path.

Hello, Syria.

The Akiba Hebrew Academy graduate and Cornell University senior said that despite some initial fears about visiting the Arab nation, he and four other student traveling companions found warm hospitality. "People just wanted to help us the entire time and show us around, and not expect anything in return."

Arem's time in the Middle Eastern country was just one component of a study-abroad program he undertook this past spring. He spent the semester taking classes and learning Arabic at a university in Zarqua, Jordan, outside of Amman.

Arem was one of about a dozen American students on the program, four of whom, he said, were Jews.

Arem spent this summer in Egypt participating in an immersive Arabic-language program, with a Critical Language Scholarship issued from the State Department. When the academic year begins in a few weeks, he'll go back to Cornell to finish his degree in government, with a minor in city planning. He said that he is considering applying to law school upon graduation.

Even though safety was always a concern, he said, it was important to him to learn Arabic firsthand, not only because "it seemed like a cool language, but it's politically relevant."

He said that although his family supported him traveling to a place not always considered friendly toward Jews.

Part of their comfort level, he added, came from the fact that "I wasn't the first one going," and that "I wouldn't be on my own. I'm sure if I went by myself it would have been a different story."

Still, he knew he would have to be careful. He said that during his stint in Jordan, he didn't broadcast his Judaism to those around him. When he was offered meat, he told people he was a vegetarian, rather than say he keeps kosher; and if people asked his religion, he did whatever he could to change the subject, including discussing the roots of his name.

Arem said that he sometimes felt alienated when he heard people say disparaging things about Jews or Israel, or when he realized that he couldn't be completely honest with people, even those he has known for months.

'Goals in Mind'

Roger Allen, a longtime professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania, said that enrollment in Arabic courses nearly quadrupled after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since the fall of 2002, said Allen, the number has hovered between 80 and 90 students.

He said that Jewish students comprise one of the largest groups studying the language at Penn: "Most of them have particular goals in mind for studying Arabic; I don't think they take it on a whim."

Many of them "have notions of solving the Middle East conflict somehow, or wanting to be involved in discussions doing that," he said, but an equal number seem to be interested in the close relationship between Jewish and Arabic history, especially their languages and culture.

One of Allen's students who has been abroad recently is Seattle native Elisheva Goldberg, a 22-year-old studying Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn. Much of her time lately has been spent in locales like Alexandria, Egypt, and Rabat, Morocco. Some of her travels have been facilitated through America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (Amideast), a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop cooperation between the areas.

Under its auspices, she spent part of the 2009-10 academic year studying in Morocco and living with a Jewish host family in the city's Old City. Prior to that, she spent two months in Alexandria on the same Arabic-immersion program that Arem took part in.

"For anything to happen in the Mideast, people need to be able to talk to one another," said Goldberg. "I want them to feel comfortable talking to me in their own tongue."

Although Goldberg said that she isn't entirely sure yet what she wants to do professionally, she hopes it will involve writing about the Middle East.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said that while "there has always been a small trickle of students" interested in spending semesters in such locales, it seems to be more common now than a decade ago.

"This is part of a major attitudinal change that we see among committed Jewish students today over their older cousins from eight or 10 years ago," he said.

He pointed out that much of that change relates to a desire to understand the Arab and Muslim worlds, "and perhaps even accept it, without moving away from the Jewish narrative on the Middle East."

Still, it's one thing for a new generation to learn about Arab lands; it's another to change the perceptions of those nations.

But Arem responded positively. The number of American Jews studying in such places, he said, "is pretty significant at this point, and I think the number of problems is pretty low. So I think that, more than any of my personal experiences, may change people's minds."

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