Seeing Israel through a different prism

Through the Faculty Fellowship program, US college professors from numerous disciplines visit the Holy Land for the first time for an opportunity to collaborate with their Israeli counterparts

Profs. Manoj Shukla from New Mexico University and Cathy Elias from DePaul University, Illinois discuss the Faculty Fellowship program while in Jerusalem (photo credit: DAVID BRUMMER)
Profs. Manoj Shukla from New Mexico University and Cathy Elias from DePaul University, Illinois discuss the Faculty Fellowship program while in Jerusalem
(photo credit: DAVID BRUMMER)
Amid the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter on a Friday afternoon, Faculty Fellowship Summer Institute in Israel program participants took a break from their hectic schedule to reflect on both the intellectual, spiritual and physical journey they experienced during their 11-day visit to Israel.
For Prof. Monica Gray, an environmental engineer with a specialization in water conservation at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, standing in the very spots mentioned in the Bible, was a deeply moving experience. “It is so exciting to get the opportunity to see both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament sites,” she said. “They underpin my Christian faith and now they have transformed in my mind from 2D to 3D.”
Professionally, Gray said that she had made invaluable connections with colleagues from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and planned further meetings regarding their common interests in water resources. Gray added that she recently took her students – many of whom are the first generation in their families to attend college – to Greece on a detailed study trip, but suggested that her positive interactions with Israeli colleagues might mean that it will be next on the university’s destination list.
Several of the participants acknowledged that the reality of life in Israel was far different from what they had been led to believe.
“The media message we see is that the country is a war zone,” admitted Gray “but the reality is much more beautiful.”
This JNF-USA and Media Watch International initiative to bring college professors to tour the country and see it first-hand could be instrumental in encouraging a more nuanced debate. As more professors take part, they will potentially feel they are given better tools to present new ideas and are able to provide an increasingly balanced view in the hotbed of what currently passes for discourse on US college campuses.
Some may encourage their students to come to Israel so they can hear from a cross-section of Israeli society, and not simply formulate their thinking or arguments based on news outlets and social media that mirror their own particular points of view.
Manoj Shukla, a professor of plant environmental sciences at New Mexico State University, and Cathy Elias, a professor of Musicology at DePaul University in Illinois, agreed with Gray. Shukla said that Israel was not at all the “police state” he had been led to believe it was, with a much more muted military and police presence than he had previously thought. His friends had a similar reaction to many on hearing of a person’s first trip to Israel – “Are you sure?” Elias, for her part, acknowledged she had a deeper understanding of the culture before the trip, and had found her response to Israel broadly sympathetic during the international media’s coverage of Operation Protective Edge – namely that the country was unfairly maligned during the 51-day war.
“Much of the antisemitism that we see today in the US is based on ignorance. The situation is presented as being either black or white, but it is more nuanced than that.”
Elias added that there was not enough emphasis on what goes on in Israel – such as its cultural and religious diversity and scientific innovation; and that always highlighting the West Bank, Gaza and the “conflict” meant that Israel was viewed through a particular prism.
Shukla added that the impression given about Israel is that its existence is purely a result of European colonialism following the Holocaust and that he had not previously had much insight into Judaism. This trip, however, allowed him to realize that the Jewish connection to the land dates back much further. Shukla and Elias agreed that the best way to educate people about Israel is to bring them here and allow them to experience the country first-hand. They said that Israel is a target and sometimes struggles to get its message across, including a pervasive misunderstanding that the Israeli government of the day is somehow representative of Jews everywhere.
Clearly a deep thinker, the trip had facilitated Gray’s wrestling with many of the issues that pockmark Israel’s political landscape; such as how a person on the street reconciles being Israeli and Jewish. “The country has made mistakes but continues to move forward – essentially building the bridge at the same time as trying to cross it.”
Both Gray and Shukla were in awe of their Israeli counterparts in water conservation, with particular reference to water reclamation, recycling and reuse. Israel treats 85 percent of its sewage, which is then reused as irrigation water for agriculture and public works, while the US reclaims only around 3 percent, although Florida, New Mexico and California are leaders in trying to change that. Gray was impressed that Israel had essentially accepted the need for water conservation and that the country, which should have a water deficit in fact, has more than twice what it needs.
She wanted to investigate along with her Israeli counterparts what lessons could be applied and what the potential barriers are.
“It’s not possible to export an idea wholesale,” she added, “what works in one country may not work in another, due to any number of obstacles including societal and cultural ones.”
The Faculty Fellowship has clearly gained in popularity – and its combination of intellectual stimulation and personal development is a potent mix, providing a transformative and life-changing experience.
Prof. Elias remarked that she thought it would become increasingly difficult to gain entry to the program in the coming years, attracting people of all religions and none.
Clearly, this year’s participants will return to their universities and share with their colleagues, departments, deans and students the impact of their trip and encourage future interaction, communication and participation with their Israeli peers.
Sharon Tzour, founder and executive director of Media Watch International commented, “The beauty of Faculty Fellowship is that the relationships made during the two-week program are transformational as they become life-long partnerships between professors in both the US and Israel who are truly trying to help – inside and outside the classroom – make the world a better place, and pass that information on to their students.”
And, the program’s lessons seem clear.
The opportunity to meet with Israeli faculty members and listen to experts in their respective fields is deeply appreciated, but it is the cultural connections that leave even deeper impressions. It is the ability to successfully challenge paradigms and assumptions that enrich the overall experience, including, but not limited to, examples of the empowerment of women in usually patriarchal settings and examples of Jewish-Muslim-Israeli Arab cooperation. So, participants leave with a more rounded view of Israel; its history, its geography, its water resources, its geology, its technology... and its future.
This article was prepared in cooperation with JNF-USA.