back to school

As always, the new semester brings with it a new class schedule, and Hebrew University ended ended up offering almost exactly what I was looking for. I’m enrolled in courses covering the history of Israel, Israel’s Arab neighbors, Co-existence, Judaism, Islam, and Arabic. They’ll allow me to continue studying topics which are related to my major, while gaining insight into some new ideas.

The university itself is a great school. It’s recognized internationally, and offers classes ranging from Jewish Studies to Neuroeconomics. Classes at the university are taught mostly in Hebrew, while its Rothberg International School offers courses solely in English. Study-abroad students enroll in classes on a shortened semester schedule, in order to allow them to return home in time to take summer classes or prepare for internships.  It is an impressive school, but I found one thing to be a little strange while signing up for classes- Yoni, our academic advisor, looked over my schedule and made one comment: “This looks great- you have a balanced set of professors.” At the time, I didn’t really think much of it, but after a few weeks of classes, I’ve come to realize what he meant. Here’s a brief overview of my impression of my classes so far:

The History of Israel is actually taught by Yoni himself, who serves as my academic advisor and is kind of like the Egypt Kids’ “new Fadi”. The class itself is pretty straightforward- we cover everything from the first waves of Aliyah (or immigration) to Israel, to the creation of the state, to the present. It’s also in the biggest classroom/lecture hall that I’ve seen here at Rothberg International School, which isn’t saying much. The classroom probably holds around a hundred students, but only actually has about twenty or thirty enrolled in it. It’s a little different from the 800-person Campbell Hall at UCSB! Sloane and Harry, two other Cairo evacuees, are in the class with me, which often leads Yoni to make comments directed at us in the middle of lecture. He seems to be pretty entertained by the whole situation, and enjoys bringing up the fact that we lived under curfew and have been interviewed by different media outlets whenever possible.

“Comparative Politics and Communication of Israel’s Arab Neighbors: Dancing with Wolves and Sheep,” or as most normal people call it, “Comparative Politics,” is not so straightforward. Professor Widlanski is well-known as a multilingual media pundit who spent years translating Palestinian documents. He speaks English, Arabic, Hebrew, and French fluently, and loves throwing different terms around in class. Our time spent in lecture, however, is a little unconventional. For those of you from Los Altos, he’s kind of like a Jewish Mr. Freeman. Widlanski does not make use of powerpoints, notes, or any decipherable form of organization during his lectures. Instead, he prefers to speak freely about the structures of the various countries surrounding Israel, forms of government, grammar rules, and current events in flowery language. So far, most of our class time has been dedicated to student presentations on Sudan, Arabian Peninsula values, and human rights, with Widlanski interrupting every couple of minutes to interject his two cents.

In fact, on the first day of class, he asked if anyone would be interested in giving a presentation on Egypt. Of course, I raised my hand, along with a couple of other students in the class. Widlanski immediately pointed us out and asked us to give our presentation within the next couple of classes- that was a nice surprise. So, Shannon covered the history of Egypt, Rose spoke about socio-cultural issues, and I gave an overview of the 2011 Revolution. Since Shannon and Rose spoke first, and Widlanski interrupted so often, they ended up taking almost the entire class period to present, so I ended up speaking on my own during class the next week. What was supposed to be a ten minute presentation turned into a 45 minute one, as I attempted to cover the numerous facets of the revolution- key players, the history of Egyptian demonstrations, a day-by-day account of the protests, and an overview of the aftermath. I was actually pretty proud of the result- I did my best to provide a balanced view of the revolution, without the sensationalism that usually accompanies reports about the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak, and the protests. I’ll post it here, if possible.

I would say that Widlanski is my most obviously biased professor. He routinely makes broad statements and exaggerated claims, which I assume is a result of his long history in the media. Within the first couple of days of class, he had assured us that the Egypt protests were largely anti-semitic, with tons of protesters waving posters with the star of David on Mubarak’s forehead. Also, in order to “help us research” our Egypt presentation, Widlanski sent Shannon, Rose, and I articles and documents about Egypt and the revolution. The vast majority of them were widely biased against Arabs, Egyptians, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and one was even a transcript of an interview that Widlanski himself had participated in- he was quoted as saying that he would rather have stability in Egypt than democracy, for the good of the state of Israel. He has demanded that we don’t use the term “Palestine,” and has rejected the credibility of a wide range of news sources, such as al-Jazeera and the BBC. Strangely enough, while I was giving my presentation and mentioned the fact that the tear gas that the Egyptian police were using was made in the United States, he denied the truth of that statement. The five Egypt evacuees in the class, including myself, immediately objected and told him that there were countless images of protesters holding up tear gas canisters with “Made in U.S.A.” stamped on them, and a couple of the evacuees in the class had even seen it with their own eyes. I found it questionable that he had evidently seen so many anti-semitic posters during the protests (of which I hadn’t seen one), but hadn’t seen a single picture of these tear gas canisters- he obviously has very selective evidence.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting class. I enjoy hearing what Widlanski says, and never know what he’ll argue next. It’s also a little shocking to see the students in the class nod their heads and go along with just about everything he says- I understand that I’m a little biased in the opposite direction, and am quicker to jump to Egypt’s defense than the average person, but it really shows the importance of doing your own research and drawing your own conclusions. At the very least, being in this class encourages me to stay up-to-date on my facts and current events so that I can defend my opinions in front of Widlanski.

Radical Co-existence in Judaism: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution is one of my favorite classes, purely because of the professor. I hadn’t intended to take the course, but after a strong recommendation from my roommate Sloane, both Analucia and I decided to check it out and ended up enrolling. It’s a Jewish Studies/Philosophy course, which only supports my history of loving every single Religious Studies professor I’ve ever had. The class itself looks at the concept of “peace” in terms of being a Jewish value, as compared to the Western model. Most of the assignments so far have covered critiques of Kant, as well as examples of peace and politics in Biblical texts- it’s always interesting when your homework is to read the Bible. The professor, Alick Isaacs, has a great objective perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and attempts to keep current events and politics separate from lecture whenever possible. He’s always open to questions and critiques, has put in a solid effort to learn our names, and has already invited the entire (20 or so) person class to his home for an end-of-the-semester dinner.

Religious Foundations of Judaism: Intellectual Trends and Ideological Developments is a great introductory course for me. I (obviously) had absolutely no idea that I would end up in Israel, so I have no background knowledge of Judaism, Hebrew, or religion in general. Foundations of Judaism covers various aspects of Judaism through the ages, including Karaism, poetry, Kabbalah, American Judaism, and Zionism, to name a few. Dr. Jospe also stresses the similarities and differences between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and points out reasons for the three religions of the book to agree and disagree on various concepts. It’s a tiny class- there are only five or six of us enrolled, but it’s a useful course to take while I’m here in Israel.

Another one of my favorite classes is Perspectives on Islam: Religion, History, and Culture. The professor, Nafez Nazzal, is a little bit crazy, but in a good way. His lectures and students are very personal to him, which results in some emotionally-charged classes that often lead to tangents about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States, and his own family. Nazzal is a Muslim Palestinian with an extensive background in political affairs (google him!), family members in Ramallah (the West Bank), and a part-time position teaching at Harvard over the summer. During the first day of classes, he stated that he is a Muslim who does not pray five times a day, but insists that this does not make him a bad Muslim- the goodness of a person cannot be determined by how often you pray. He went on to inform us that he also teaches at Berzeit University, a school in the West Bank. Nazzal often comments on how he has to keep aspects of his life a secret from his Palestinian students at Berzeit, including the fact that he teaches Israelis and Americans at Hebrew University, goes to an Israeli dentist, and doesn’t pray that often. During lectures, he often uses his own family as examples of Muslim culture, and even sang the Call to Prayer for us and demonstrated how to pray by getting down on his own personal prayer mat at the front of the class. He teaches the class in a very honest, understandable way, and the fact that I can relate to it from my time in Egypt makes it all the more enjoyable.

When fifteen Egypt evacuees showed up at Hebrew University, a huge demand for Arabic Language classes formed. Hebrew U offers a very basic selection of Arabic classes- a few Palestinian dialect courses, introductory Arabic, and Literary Arabic. This was quite a big change from the American University in Cairo, which has an Arabic Language Institute offering enough classes to take Arabic all day, every day for a few years. So, Hebrew U got creative. They exempted the Egypt kids from the mandatory Hebrew course, and two women who were part of the Arabic department met with all of the potential Arabic students and put together an extensive set of Independent Study classes which would cover all of our needs. So, instead of taking Arabic every day for an hour or two, I’m enrolled in an Independent Study class for Modern Standard Arabic, which meets for one hour, once a week. This is nowhere near enough time to productively study a language, but we’re trying to make it work- Shannon and Morgan, two of my fellow Egypt evacuees, are also in my Independent Study class, so we get together a few times a week to work on homework together, go over lessons, and practice speaking.

The real issue with this whole Arabic things is whether or not I’ll be able to transfer the credit to UCSB, and have it count for my major. The Global Studies major requires that you study one language for six quarters, which is the equivalent of four semesters, or two years. At this point, I’ve studied Modern Standard Arabic for four quarters (a.k.a. three semesters, or 1.5 years). I need one more semester worth of this same language in order to fulfill my requirement, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will do the trick! One downside of the University of California’s Study Abroad Program is that they don’t guarantee that your classes will transfer into your major until after you return from abroad and show them all of your coursework. I need to complete five chapters’ worth of vocabulary and grammar in my textbook in order to be at the same level as the students back at UCSB. My Independent Study professor, an old, feisty woman named Yael, isn’t too pleased with the fact that we’re hurrying her along to meet a certain deadline (she insists that it’s much more important to understand each concept fully and in her own order before moving on, which makes sense), but there’s not much that I can do about that. We’ll see!

So, that’s what I’m up to during the week. There’s my Islam and Arabic professors teaching me the Arab side of things, Comparative Politics and Judaism showing me the other side, and Yoni and Dr. Alick somewhere in the middle. Yoni was right- I did end up with a pretty balanced selection of professors, although the fact that there is so much bias in the classroom that students need to worry about this factor is a little questionable. I do appreciate the fact that my professors have first-hand experience in their fields, but am hoping that their personal agendas don’t get the best of the class. Regardless, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what comes of this semester at Hebrew University.

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