October 18, 2013
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.
“I don’t see it as a contradiction at all,” said Ms. Berger, 23, who grew up near Philadelphia where she attended a Jewish day school. “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.”
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.