Although falafel stands have yet to be sighted at American University, Israel is gaining a foothold there.
Already home to a Center for Israel Studies (which has produced its first class of "graduates") the District-based A.U. is now launching a program through which students from other schools can learn intensively about the Jewish state.
The new 16-week initiative, set to begin next spring, is known as the Washington Semester in Israel Studies. Participating students (undergraduates as well as recent graduates) are eligible to earn 16 academic credits via 13 weeks of Israel-related study in Washington, followed by three weeks in Israel.
Various Washington Semester programs have been offered at A.U. since 1947, exploring topics ranging from economic policy to journalism to peace and conflict resolution. This, however, is the first one devoted strictly to the study of Israel.
Why Israel and why now?
One reason is that there "seems to be a constituency for it," said David Brown, dean of the Washington Semester program. He said he has encountered a number of students at other campuses who told him that they wanted to study in Israel, but weren't able to spend an entire semester there. "Some of these students have ethnic or cultural roots there, but others do not."
Another rationale for the new offering: "The Mideast is certainly in the news," Brown said, "so it makes sense for us to do something in that region." That violence in Israel has subsided, he added, and that the country is "America's only democratic ally in the region is also appealing from a security point of view."
The new program's first applicant, who has been accepted, is Joseph Hayden, 19, a freshman at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., a liberal arts institution. According to his application, Hayden, who is not Jewish, is majoring in religion "with an emphasis on the Abrahamic tradition," and hopes to become an "advisor on Islam-Judaism relations."
A.U.'s Center for Israel Studies, which is helping develop and promote the Washington Semester initiative, has been in existence since 1998. The center, which has 30 faculty advisers and affiliates, has helped create the impetus for the new initiative by raising the profile of Israel studies on campus, according to Russell Stone, director of the center. Brown concurred.
Four students with Israel studies minors recently graduated from A.U., making them the first students with such a minor to have graduated from a U.S. university, according to Adina Kanefield, the center's assistant director.
One of the four graduates is Elizabeth Detwiler, 22, who majored in international relations and is now enrolled in the university's master's program for international peace and conflict resolution. Detwiler, who is Jewish and grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., said she has been deeply interested in Israel since her high school years.
"Now, this makes it official," she said. "It feels good."
Detwiler attended Hebrew University last year for two semesters, and those credits were applied to her minor at A.U. She said that once she completes her schooling, "I hope to contribute to influencing and shaping U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East to make it more fair and balanced with a better understanding of the dynamics on the ground."
As for the Washington Semester program, it will have room for about 25 students, and will cost $23,500. Brown, however, emphasized that "substantial" need-based scholarships will be available.
The program's Washington portion will include extensive meetings with "policymakers and advocacy groups that help shape U.S.-Israeli relations," according to the Washington Semester Web site. The Israel portion will include meetings with political and military leaders as well as with "everyday Israelis who are passionate about their beliefs."