In September 2011 I moved to Israel, to commence a 2 year MA program in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Rothberg International School, which is affiliated to Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The course is primarily focused on the modern Middle East, and covers the languages, religion, culture, history and politics of the region. It is a field in which I have been interested for some time; my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University included modules in Middle Eastern history and politics, and I later volunteered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jordan, where I interviewed a number of Palestinian refugees and UN workers, and heard their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my specific area of interest. It was a great experience, but I was acutely aware that I needed to hear more of the Jewish Israeli perspective.
Issawiya, with the 'Wall' separating the West Bank from Israel to the left.
Living in Jerusalem and studying at Rothberg has given me that opportunity and many other benefits. The key advantage is the location. I live in a large, densely populated Arab-Israeli village. On one side of this village is the large and impressive campus of the Hebrew University, while running along the opposite side is the ‘Wall’ or ‘Separation Barrier’ which divides the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, from Israel. If I walk for 5 minutes in another direction, I enter a smart Jewish suburb popular with students. The contrast is striking, the issues fuelling the complex and divisive politics of Israel immediately apparent.
The course itself is excellent. Interaction with tutors provides insights which I would be unlikely to obtain in the UK. My Arabic classes, for example, are taught by an Arab Jew in his mid 80s, who remembers the Jewish uprising against the British during the mandate period, and the 1948 War of Independence in which he fought. Courses on Turkey and Iran have helped me better understand countries whose foreign policies towards Israel have been, and continue to be, so important to stability in the Middle East. Next year I will return to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, specifically the 1948 War of Independence and the civil war which preceded it. Beyond politics, I am studying some of the contemporary facets of Islam, such as the growing movement of Islamic feminist academics who seek to transform the role of women in Muslim societies.
The Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, where religion and politics collide.
Living and studying in Jerusalem has been an immense privilege. It is of course possible to study the politics of the Middle East in Britain, but daily life in Jerusalem has deepened my understanding. I will always remember the minute’s silence to remember the Holocaust, just as I will never forget the celebrations in my village on the day when hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier. Life in Jerusalem is difficult at times, but it is certainly never dull.
Neil was awarded a Study Abroad Studentship grant in 2011.