Miriam Berger studied Arabic at Wesleyan University, lived twice as a student in Jordan, did thesis research in the West Bank and, after graduation, worked in Cairo. And like many of the Americans she has met each step of the way, she is Jewish.
"I don't see it as a contradiction at all," said Ms. Berger, 23, who grew up near Philadelphia where she attended a Jewish day school. "I grew up hearing so much about the Middle East, how it was this dangerous place we can't understand, but as I learned more, every day it felt like old ideas were being challenged, and I wanted to contribute to better understanding."
In the United States, colleges and universities are riding a two-decade surge in Middle East studies, reflecting that region's consistent pull on American economics and security. And while there are no definitive demographic data, students and professors say that in classrooms, or in undergraduate study-abroad and postgraduate fellowship programs in the Middle East and in Arabic, it is not unusual for one-quarter or more of the students to be Jewish.
These students say their interest grew because of their heritage, not in spite of it. They feel a desire, even a duty, to understand a region where Israel and the United States are enmeshed in longstanding conflicts, and to act as bridges between cultures — explaining the Arab world to Americans, and America (and sometimes Jews) to Arabs.
"I felt I needed to see Palestinians as full, complete, sympathetic human beings," said Moriel Rothman, 24, who was born in Israel, grew up in Ohio and studied Arabic at Middlebury College. He now lives in Israel and works for an organization, Just Vision, that makes documentaries about conflict and cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis.
"The part of Judaism that resonates most strongly with me," he said, "is to love the stranger, remembering when we were strangers."
Some Americans go into Middle East studies because their families come from that part of the world, because they see it as a shrewd move for future business careers, or because they want to go into national security-related work. But more than almost any other academic field, professors and students say their interest stems from a concern for the politics of the region.
"What I hear from students from all backgrounds is they want to make things better, they want to make the world better, even if that sounds trite," said Osama Abi-Mershed, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "There are small us-versus-them factions among Arab and non-Arab students, but the hard-line positions do not lend themselves to this kind of study."
As a group, the Jewish students tend to be politically liberal; some are religiously observant, but few are religiously conservative. They generally sympathize with Arab points of view, and criticize both Israel's treatment of Palestinians and American involvement in the Middle East, although they remain committed to Israel's existence. Those views may make them at home in classrooms, but they can alienate them from friends and family members who have harsher views of the Arab world or fear for their safety in the Middle East.
"Just telling Jewish people that I was studying Arabic, I would get very, very negative reactions without even getting into the politics," said Eliana Fishman, 25, who majored in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth and studied in Morocco.
At the same time, Americans know that they remain, irrevocably, outsiders among Arabs, often viewed with suspicion. And after cheering the stirrings of the Arab Spring, the students admit to being disillusioned by its results, including the empowerment of Islamist factions.
Many American students, Jewish or not, insist that they felt safe in Arab countries, but recent violence has cut short study-abroad programs in several places. Andrew Pochter, a Jewish student at Kenyon College, was killed in June in a street protest in Alexandria, weeks after Christopher Stone, a professor at Hunter College, was stabbed in Cairo, reportedly targeted for being American.
Many Jews avoid revealing their religious identity in the Middle East, believing that it would put them at greater risk; for that reason, some of those interviewed insisted that they not be identified, because they intend to return to the region. Americans also find that in Arab countries, even more problematic than coming from a Jewish or Christian background is adhering to no faith at all.
"One doesn't always want to admit to being Jewish in the Muslim world, but atheism is generally beyond comprehension, beyond acceptance," said Zachary Lockman, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at New York University, who is Jewish, but not religious.
The same young people who contend that Americans have simplistic views of the Arab world say the problem is worse in the other direction: grinding poverty, lack of education and government-controlled news media often translate to cartoonish images of the United States and Israel. In Cairo, especially, women face daily sexual harassment, and for Western women, the problem is magnified by exaggerated assumptions about their sexual permissiveness.
For decades, American policy makers lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, leaving a shortage of expertise in the military, the intelligence services and the diplomatic corps. Arabic, which is not part of the Indo-European language family, is a challenge for Western students; generally, they must learn not only the Modern Standard Arabic that is understood from Iraq to Morocco, but also one of the local variants that people actually speak day to day, and classical Arabic if they want to read literature or the Koran.
But in the past generation, with wars turning American attention to the Middle East, interest has soared.
In 1990, fewer than 3,600 students were learning Arabic at American colleges, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association. In 2002, there were about 10,600 — still only about half as many as were taking ancient Greek. By 2009, that had jumped to more than 35,000.
"For years, we had one section of first-year Arabic, and we finally got approval for a second, for the term that, as it happened, started just after Sept. 11, 2001," said Fred M. Donner, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. "We were expecting maybe 30 students, and we got 80. Eventually we got up to having four or five sections each year of first-year Arabic."
For the students who go further, and study or live in the Middle East, a common theme is the clash between their idealism and the harsher realities they encounter.
"I grew up with the idea of 'tikkun olam,' " a Hebrew phrase meaning "heal the world," said Joseph Pearl, 24, who studied Arabic at Dartmouth. "I would look at the whole Arab-Israeli situation and think that's only going to be healed by greater understanding."
But after five months in Morocco, studying and working for a nonprofit group, he said, "I decided I was pretty naïve about my ability to have a positive impact." Now a middle school teacher in St. Louis, he said he would not work again in the Middle East any time soon.
However, others, like Ms. Berger, whose fellowship in Cairo came to a premature end amid rioting in July, insist that even after their romanticized notions of the Arab world have been dented, their interest is undimmed.
"I will go back," she said. "The Middle East is my passion."