By Anat Maor
When I first arrived at the University of California in Irvine, I didn’t know a single person there. To tell you the truth, I was feeling apprehensive about my new role as a professor in Israel studies here, especially given the reputation of the school. This was the same university which saw confrontations between student protestors and Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in 2010, which culminated in arrests and the Zionist Organization of America branding UCI as “a campus that permitted bigotry.” Yet after just one month I have already started to feel at home in Irvine. How did this happen? Contrary to expectations, I have had many positive experiences here.
I teach two courses: “Women in Israel” and “Legislation and Politics in Israel.” My students come from a wide variety of backgrounds; Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many of them are from Asian countries and although they are very interested in learning about Israel, there can be large gaps in knowledge between the students. So one of the first challenges that I faced here as a teacher was how to bring everyone up to speed while keeping the interest of the students who already had a strong knowledge base about Israel.
As part of getting my students more involved, I decided to encourage Jewish students to use their background. When they give academic presentations to the class, they could close it with short talks about their experiences in Israel. One student spoke about his time in Israel on Taglit. What I did not expect, though perhaps I should have, was the sensitivity of the Muslim students and their insistence that the course respect the Arab point of view as well. In one particular example, a student asked me after class why the “Nakba” was not covered in my unit on the Independence War. In order to offset this, the Jewish Federation and I decided to arrange an informal meeting of the students at the end of the semester.
Outside of the classroom my fellow professors have been very friendly and courteous to me, the stranger in their midst. I spoke to the head of the Political Science department for an hour about what life is like in Israel and he invited me to participate in academic meetings to discuss the Israeli elections. I also met with two other professors who wished to have coffee with me and discuss matters in Israel. It is likely that my presence at UCI not only helped educate my students but also other professors who may not have had the opportunity to hear about Israel from the lion’s mouth, so to speak.
Furthermore, I have been very active in a group called “Olive Tree,” which brings Israeli and Palestinian students together for dialogue, and every summer they go to visit the Middle East. I have developed a close personal connection with the vice president of this group.
To conclude, although I have only been teaching at UCI for a few short weeks I can already see that I am going to have a great time here. I have been taking part in personal meetings in the fields of academia and the Jewish community in Orange Country. These talks continue and strengthen the connection with the people here and those in Israel. My husband and I are very happy to experience the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the University of California at Irvine and the surrounding area. The perfect weather helps too!