NY Times: 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.
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.