How Studying Arabic Brought Me to Israel in the Summer of 2014

During the summer preceding my freshman year of college, I received a text from a good friend of mine encouraging me to learn Arabic. The message read something like, "You want to go into journalism in the Middle East, right? You should learn Arabic so I have someone to practice speaking with over winter break." My friend brought up a good point -- proficiency in Arabic would definitely give me a leg up in the job market. In addition, it would be quite the accomplishment for someone from a small town in Central Minnesota with limited exposure to Arab culture to learn Arabic. I had never considered learning the language, but seeing as I love a challenge, I decided to enroll in UC San Diego's Arabic program. How hard could learning Arabic be?

My first quarter at UCSD was almost entirely dedicated to my two Arabic classes. I learned how to read and write in roughly three weeks, during which time I spent anywhere between three and six hours a night studying Arabic. This of course left an insufficient amount of time for me to allocate to my other three classes. I had indeed underestimated how much of a commitment learning Arabic would be. Despite my difficulties, I was determined to become proficient in Arabic. After discussing my options with my dad, I decided that studying abroad the following summer in addition to taking my next two quarters of Arabic for Pass/No Pass was the best course of action. Due to my previous experience, I have concluded that immersion is the most effective way to learn a language.

After weeks of sorting through prospective programs, my dad and I settled on an intensive language course at the University of Haifa in Israel. It might seem strange to study Arabic abroad in a country where only a minority of the population speaks the language but the price of the course was too good to pass up. I had wanted so badly to study in Egypt; however, due to the increased tension after at least 500 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death, my dad begged me to reconsider.

I began my summer with a two-week volunteer project in Armenia and continued on to Israel on July 6. These were two of the most incredible weeks of my life and I was extremely reluctant to leave. However, the intensive Arabic program in Israel awaited me so I packed my bags and
headed to Armenia's capital of Yerevan for my 6:00 a.m. flight. I flew from Yerevan to Kiev (11 days before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukrainian airspace I might add) and then on to Israel. I was skeptical about studying abroad in Israel. What would it be like learning Arabic in a country that is notorious for its occupation of the Palestinian territories? As someone who is pursuing a career in journalism, I went to Israel with the intention of forming my own opinion based on what I experienced on the ground, not the information presented by the propaganda-laden mainstream media.

Upon my arrival in Tel Aviv, I was sleep deprived and thoroughly annoyed by the lack of English and Arabic on the signs at the airport. Despite my difficulties, I found my way to the transit station and boarded a train to Haifa. The two proceeding months would become the most memorable period of my young life. I arrived on a Sunday and by Monday night I already began to assemble an exceptional group of friends that I will by all means keep in contact with into the distant future. That night I met a former translator for the US military from Arkansas who speaks fluent Arabic, a Brit who teaches in Kurdistan and an Italian lawyer who quit his job and decided to learn Hebrew simply because he had grown tired of legal work and wanted to travel. Although I had only intended on staying for one month, these remarkable individuals among countless others were the reason I decided to stay an extra month. Because I was scheduled to finish the second and final level of Arabic offered during the summer after the first month, I enrolled in the beginners' intensive Hebrew class for the duration of the second month.

On Tues., July 8 Israel initiated Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, 150 km south of Haifa. I mention the distance not because of the possibility of rockets landing in the area (which was next to none) but because of the immense guilt this proximity to the conflict generated within me. While I was spending my afternoons at the beach, my evenings watching World Cup games and my weekends traveling, innocent civilians a few hours south were losing their lives by the day. How could I enjoy my time in Israel while such suffering was taking place in Gaza? I soon came to grips with the fact that there was nothing I could do that would directly influence the current situation. Instead, I decided to take note of my experiences and numerous conversations about the conflict in order to construct my own account of life in Israel during such a consequential time. I left Israel on Aug. 31, days after Operation Protective Edge ended.

The most notable observation I made was that the vast majority of Israelis that I spoke with wanted to find a peaceful solution. Whether they were Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs, they wanted an end to the violence. My objective now is to help foster an interreligious and intercultural dialogue in the hopes of reaching a peaceful solution. I am neither Jewish nor Arab and don't identify with any religion; my motivation is simply a result of my compassion for my fellow human beings.