pacing the void

Education in Israel offers more than mere classroom learning

As an observant Christian, I am asked many times why I have chosen to spend a year in Jerusalem. An adequate answer might be that I am studying religions at the Hebrew University's Rothberg School for Overseas Students, in the city that is the epicenter of three monotheistic religions - and that would be true enough. But a better answer is that I am using the country as my classroom, learning things that could never be transmitted through books.

For example, I am being taught by professors at Hebrew University who bring their life experiences in Israel into the classroom. I study Islam with a professor who worked for the Israeli government assessing the political situation with Israel and the surrounding Arab states from a Muslim perspective. Another professor took us on a trip to study the Golan Heights, and pinpointed where he, as a soldier, served during Israel's wars and where the Syrian army made their camps.

And that's just at the university itself. Imagine going to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, does it get any better than that? Then imagine that Yasser Arafat joins your service and talks to you about the need for Christians and Muslims to bring peace to this land. How would you react to such a statement from the perspective of either religion? One might believe that I was glad to see the Palestinian leader deliver such a peaceful night when prayers for peace are heard the world over.

But from a Christian perspective, I was actually quite angered at what I heard, for Arafat's presence had taken away the religious aspect of Bethlehem, and had replaced it with a political message. Yet the educational aspect of this episode could not have been found in a classroom. It demonstrated the degree to which religion is bound up with politics in Israel and the Middle East. Unlike in the United States, where God and government are separate, Israeli political and religious issues are one and the same.

As an observant Christian, I am a minority in the Jewish state, which is a further reason to question my presence in Israel. But in a country where Judaism, Islam, and Christianity converge, what can be learned simply by living and studying cannot be taught in a classroom. I believe it is easier in the United States for various religions to co-exist peacefully for three reasons: more space, the ideology of religious freedom for everyone, and the fact that the United States is not the Holy Land. Israel is not that large, but its status as the Holy Land sadly makes it worth bloodshed to some people of all three religions.

It was one thing for me to be in America and study religion and politics. It is quite another for me to take a day to go to Ramallah - the West Bank city that houses the administration of the Palestinian Authority - and talk with residents and students concerning their views of their religious beliefs and how they tie in with the peace process. It becomes apparent that the degree of religious and political affiliation determines the degree to which individuals believe in the peace process as it stands now.

In the United States, I could not simply walk into the Old City within Jerusalem and stroll through the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter, each with its own holy sites. Three religions which historically have been at war with each other dwell together not only in the Old City, but within Jerusalem as well. It is encouraging to know that while there may be occasional tensions, this can be done, and done peacefully.

Israel is a mind-opening experience, and I am convinced that the students who are here, and the people who I have met, are those willing to learn something other than what can be portrayed on television. They want to learn, and gain an appreciation for, the culture and the people who live in not only Israel, but the Middle East. The longer I am in Israel, the more I realize how much I really do not understand about this nation and about the Middle East. That is why I am considering continuing my studies here for a master's degree.

Jana Marvel is a student at the University of Arizona who is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in its Rothberg School for Overseas Students for the 1996-97 school year.

By Jana Marvel
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 7, 1997

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