The following is an op-ed I wrote for The New York Jewish Week. Click here to view it online.
At a time of great concern about young American Jews identifying positively with Israel, study-abroad programs in Israel for U.S. college students should be a great benefit. But while these opportunities provide exposure to Hebrew language skills and immersion in Israeli society, they also foster a disconnect. The fact is that diaspora and Israeli students rarely meet in the classroom.
American University senior Samantha Levine studies Conflict Resolution, and she hoped that attending university in Haifa last fall would give her valuable exposure to a unique community. Her experience left her disenchanted.
“I was hoping that in a class called ‘Arab-Israeli Relations’ the program would think to bring an Israeli and a Palestinian to class, but instead we just sat at our desks and did nothing to incorporate our surroundings,” she said. “The international school was a bubble, and I felt really secluded.”
Levine’s dissatisfaction is not a new phenomenon. The 626 students interviewed by the American Jewish Committee in the late 1980s for its study on North American Jewish students at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School (RIS) “commented that their Israeli experience could have been more rewarding if more contacts were established with Israeli students.” Hebrew University sociologist Erik Cohen found in 1993 that 83 percent of students wanted to study in Israel to improve their Hebrew skills, and that 64 percent wanted to gain Israeli friends. These days, there is little potential for interactions with native speakers because international students are sequestered in stand-alone international schools.
One problem is structural. The schools have strict policies regarding the option of taking classes within the regular university, and rightfully so. It is unreasonable to expect Israeli universities to conduct a wide variety of classes in English for the benefit of a few hundred. Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa allow international students to take some of their classes through the regular university provided they demonstrate an advanced level of Hebrew. But scheduling issues in the Israeli and American academic calendars limit the available options.
Hebrew University does not allow international students to take classes in its regular departments. In fact, the RIS building has its own library, computer room and cafeteria, so students only venture into the regular university to buy their books at the beginning of the semester. Despite this imposed separation, RIS created a new option, Spring in Jerusalem, which ran for the first time last year. Twenty courses taught in English were offered in different Hebrew University departments, and some were presented in a shorter format to account for the longer Israeli semester. Each participant took at least two of those courses together with Israeli students.
Spring in Jerusalem offers a feasible solution to the segregation between American and Israeli students, but it needs to be expanded. Offering courses in departments like Jewish Studies, which appeal to both Israeli and American students, would help to close the divide. Instead of being elective, all international students enrolled in study-abroad programs at Israeli universities should be required to take these classes. This would increase face-to-face contact and encourage extracurricular interaction.
A second issue is the age and experience gaps between Israeli and American university students. Israeli students are generally at least two to three years older than their American peers, and they have already spent a few years performing their mandatory service for the Israel Defense Forces. Eager to spend time with friends and family on weekends, and often holding down part-time jobs while attending school, the Israeli students approach the university experience in a pragmatic, career-oriented way. As a result Israeli campuses lack the kind of vibrant extracurricular campus life familiar to most American students.
These gaps may be wide, but it is possible to narrow them. Hebrew language classes at the international schools are underused outlets for Israeli-American interaction. They are taught by Israeli teachers, but Israeli peers are best suited to introduce international students to the Hebrew of the street. Israeli students should be used as teaching assistants or conversation partners.
There are extracurricular avenues to integration as well. Programming around Jewish holidays would be particularly effective, since a 2001 survey by Tel Aviv University education experts Smadar Donitsa-Schmidt and Maggie Vadish indicated that North American students saw Jewishness as the link between themselves and Israelis. Jewish activities would also attract American Orthodox students who typically come to Israel with their social infrastructures already in place.
Until study-abroad programs in Israel encourage face-to-face interaction between American and Israeli students both inside and outside the classroom, they will continue to face a problem with integration. American college students investing a semester or year to study abroad in Israel are tomorrow’s policy-makers and community leaders, and they are hungry for an understanding of Israeli language and culture that can come only from interacting with their Israeli peers.
Allison Good is a senior at Vassar College.