As conflict and terrorism heightened this summer along the Israeli-Palestinian border, Whitworth alumnus T.J. Herbert, '03, was just weeks away from flying to Jerusalem to begin his first semester at Hebrew University.
Despite potential dangers, Herbert arrived in the Holy Land in August to begin studying the Middle East and to fulfill his long-held desire to live in a country rich in cultural history and tradition as well as political turmoil. In an e-mail to his friends shortly after arriving, he wrote, "I cannot begin to describe how incredible it is to be able to study in Jerusalem. It is a beautiful city and I am glad that I am able to call it my home for at least the next year." Outside his classroom windows are views of Palestinian villages and the Judean Hills, and during class he can hear the daily call to prayer.
"I wanted to come to Hebrew University because I have always been in love with the Middle East, and I wanted to pursue an education where I could get hands-on access to the region itself," he says. During Herbert's days as a political-studies major at Whitworth, professors like Raja Tanas inspired him to obtain a more in-depth education about the greater Middle East, he says.
Herbert began his semester taking intensive Hebrew language classes for five hours a day; he is now studying the language alongside Arabic, although his particular school, the Rothberg International School, teaches its curriculum in English.
Hebrew University is the largest school in Israel, with an enrollment of about 22,000, and is considered by some to be one of the top 200 schools in the world. A few of Herbert's classmates in his Hebrew class immigrated to Israel to learn the language and to take Hebrew courses. A majority of the university's students are Jewish Americans, with others coming from all over the world.
Culture shock is not new to Herbert, who spent last year in Taiwan teaching English. "One of the things I learned from my time in Taiwan is that you have to have a sense of cultural awareness and understanding…. It is very easy to compare America to wherever it is that you are in the world, but you can't do that," he says. That mindset has eased his transition into Middle Eastern culture. Although he initially experienced apprehension regarding terrorist attacks, he says he feels safe.
"The biggest challenge that a lot of us have experienced is that Israelis can seem very abrasive.... In Hebrew, there are no words or useful everyday phrases such as ‘May I borrow?' or ‘Would it be possible?' It is either ‘I want' or ‘I need,'" Herbert says. "An Israeli friend of mine told me that in Israel there is a saying, ‘What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine.' However, most of my Israeli friends are the warmest and most inviting people that I have ever met. Native-born Israelis are called ‘Sabras,' a metaphor referring to a native desert flower that grows in the Negev Desert that is hard and prickly on the outside, but sweet on the inside."
In the coming months, Herbert will begin an internship at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Center for the Advancement of Peace. He hopes this experience will give him a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He plans eventually to work for the U.S. Department of State within the Middle East region.