An accidental semester at Hebrew University

Students evacuated from Cairo during the January 25 revolution reflect on their roller-coaster time in Israel.

Egypt Hebrew U 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Egypt Hebrew U 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The irony of being evacuated from Cairo to Jerusalem because of safety concerns, only to be faced shortly thereafter with a bus bombing in central Jerusalem, is not lost on Penelope Shepherd.
“I remember when I heard about the bus bombing, I immediately worried about my parents... They went through a lot when I was in Cairo between not having a way to contact me during some of the most dangerous days of protesting and calling me in the middle of the night only to find out that I could hear looters and gunshots in the distance. The last thing that they needed was to hear that there was a bus bombing.
RELATED:Hebrew U takes in 12 US students fleeing Cairo upheavalNew Hebrew U students who fled Cairo see 'other side'“At this point, though, I think they might be getting used to me living in dangerous places, and I did see the irony (it was pretty great).”
Shepherd, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and a New York native, was enrolled in a study abroad program at the American University of Cairo when she and 11 other students were evacuated during the rioting in early February and given refuge at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A little over a month later, a bus bombing rocked their newfound home, killing a 59-yearold British woman and wounding more than 30 others.
Shepherd said that after the bombing she cast away her reluctance to take Jerusalem’s public transportation. “I certainly had no qualms with riding the bus after I heard about the bombing. If Israelis can face the danger and not allow terrorism to interfere with their lives, then I can too.”
At the Hebrew University in February, Shepherd recalled how one night a mob in Cairo had accused her and her friends of being Israeli spies, and how on other occasions they listened to the sounds of looting nearby. In addition, she said she was taken aback by what she said were the racist attitudes she encountered from Israelis in her initial days in the country.
Their study abroad program came to a close on Thursday.
Shepherd took the time to describe how the experience of becoming an accidental study abroad student in Jerusalem has been memorable, with its share of ups and downs.
“My semester in Jerusalem has been a roller-coaster ride: one minute I hate it here the next I love it. There’s always something new to learn from the people here, but I became very weary of political debate, especially regarding Israel, because sometimes it seemed like the only thing people wanted to ask you about as an outsider,” she said.
“What I missed most about Egypt was that everyday was an adventure because it is so different from what I’m used to, while here often times it felt like I was in Europe, which is not what I was aiming for in my study abroad experience.”
She said that as an outside, non-Jewish student in a study abroad program in Jerusalem she didn’t run into any hostility from her fellow students, though she felt that there was a climate that left out people like her.
“The worst thing was probably the exclusionary atmosphere that I sometimes ran into especially in Jerusalem since I am not Jewish. My friend and I call it the three questions – “What’s your name? Where are you from? Are you Jewish?” And sometimes that third question can end the conversation.”
Still, living in Israel, even for a short time, did have an effect on Shepherd. She said that the moment of silence on Remembrance Day was “very moving. I was on the bus and when all of Jerusalem stopped I just remember thinking that Americans need to learn this kind of respect for everyone in the history of our country that has made a sacrifice to maintain our freedoms. I was especially moved because my brother is serving in Afghanistan and every day I worry that one day the moment of silence might be for him.”
Also, she said that being in Jerusalem has taught her the virtue of not picking a side when observing an intractable conflict.
“Living here definitely gave me a different perspective on the conflict and changed the way I feel about it. I have met so many wonderful Israelis who hate Palestinians, and awesome Palestinians that hate Israelis, and I’ve realized that the two will never get along, but that taking a side certainly doesn’t help the two achieve peace. So after three months in Israel I’ve become neutral on the subject, and I think that’s the best place to be.”
Jeremy Hodge, a 22-year-old Jewish Los Angeles native, said this week that while he had been sad to leave Cairo, “overall I enjoyed it [Jerusalem] a lot, and although I probably would have preferred to stay in Cairo, I do not regret coming here and really enjoyed myself. The other students and I who got evacuated from Cairo all became very close and it wasn’t long before we became known around campus as ‘the Cairo kids.’” Hodge has been interning as a research assistant at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University, where he has helped translate archived articles from the Arab press for a book that institute fellow Hillel Cohen is writing on the 1929 Arab riots.
Hodge had some complaints about the “very weak” level of Arabic classes that he enrolled in at Hebrew U, following three years of Arabic study in the United States and fulltime language classes at the American University of Cairo’s Arabic Language Institute, and about Hebrew U’s restrictions on students’ travel to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which he said made it difficult to work on his Arabic.
He also said he missed the camaraderie he had with study abroad students in Egypt.
“Obviously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very polarizing issue, and as a result people who choose to study in an Arab country are going to be different in many ways from those who choose to study in Israel. Although I wouldn’t label what the Cairo kids encountered as outright hostility, some elements of the student body here at Hebrew University speculated (sometimes in a negative light) about our motivations for coming to the Middle East and where our sympathies lie, often times in a way that caused us to feel like we had to defend ourselves in ways that became tiring. Being surrounded by more like-minded individuals in Cairo was one thing I think we all missed,” he said.
Hodge said he never felt threatened in Israel, though like Shepherd he was struck by the randomness of political violence inside Israel, the way it can strike without warning.
“In my opinion, even during the revolution Cairo was a safer place, as staying inside and avoiding certain neighborhoods was a pretty good guarantee of safety, whereas in Israel, you can literally be blown up in what is considered an upscale safe area without having any way of knowing or preparing for it ahead of time. The extent to which this random violence is applicable to everyone here, even relatively protected study abroad students, is emphasized by the fact that the woman who died in the recent bombing [near] the Jerusalem central bus station was a student at the Rothberg Institute of Hebrew University; several of my friends had class with her. It could have very well as easily been me or someone I was close to who died instead of her.”
Unlike Shepherd, Hodge was familiar with many aspects of Israeli culture and Judaism, but still he found himself learning how different the Israeli experience is from that of American Jews.
“Living in Jerusalem really exposed me in a way that only living here can as to how living in a constant state of war affects your train of thought and how one conducts one’s life. I really began to notice that there is in fact a difference between American Jews and Israelis. For example, I remember the day after the central bus station bombing I was in a bank which had Jewish and Arab customers.
Although I do not consider myself a racist person, in fact on the contrary, one who sympathizes very much with Palestinian calls for self-determination in addition to other issues regarding the Arab world, I remember thinking that it was odd that Arabs could be allowed to openly mix with Jews in such public places 24 hours after a terrorist attack occurred which was rooted entirely in hatred between those two groups.
“I caught myself immediately, and rationally reminded myself as to why this was obviously the case, that to segregate Arabs and Jews would be racist and morally wrong.
However, this was probably the first time in my life where my gut reaction and biological need to preserve my own safety so strongly contradicted my morals and ideals in a way that caused me, even for a split second, to go back on what I believe.”
Hodge said that while being in Jerusalem “didn’t really overturn any pre-conceived ideas I had regarding Israel, it absolutely shed light, in a more emotional, entirely nonacademic way, as to why and how the conflict has gotten where it has.”