When E.’s plane from Amman touched down in Rome, she started to cry. After spending a semester studying abroad in Jordan, E., in town to visit friends, felt she could safely put on her Star of David necklace and her prized “If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem” necklace.
Every year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, more than 300,000 American students – 1.6% of the population enrolled in higher education – leave the US bound for universities in Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
Four Jewish-American students – E., D., A., and Z., who preferred not to use their actual names – independently spent a semester studying in Jordan. They spoke with the Magazine about being surrounded by anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments while remaining connected to Israel and Jewish practice.
Living among the Jordanians
Officially, Jerusalem and Amman have had diplomatic, economic and cultural relations since 1994, when the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late Jordanian King Hussein signed a peace treaty, three months after declaring an end to the state of war between the neighboring countries.
But the experience of E. and other American Jewish students studying Arabic language and Middle East studies in Jordan tells a very different story of relations between Jews and Jordanians on the ground. These students often hid their Jewish identities and pro-Israel feelings from host families, language partners and in one case, from a Jordanian Palestinian boyfriend.
“The only time I explicitly lied,” says E., a student at a large state university in the Midwest, “is when a cab driver asked about my religion.” When she informed him that she was a Christian, he smiled and replied, “We Christians and Arabs are brothers.” In another instance, E.’s Arabic teacher asked the language class to reply to the prompt, “What did you do yesterday?”
“I had to lie,” E. recalls. “I wasn’t going to tell them I was in Israel for Pessah [Passover]!”
D., a student at a private Midwestern university, plans to make aliya upon graduation and work on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. While in Jordan last year, he observed the public level of antisemitism to be high. His taxi driver announced “Jews in America – lots of money!” D. also learned of a widely-accepted belief that no Jews died in the September 11 attacks and that there is a conspiracy between Jews and ISIS.
E. heard similar comments. One professor taught that Jews in America occupy a prominent place in politics because they have all the money and all the power. Another used a specific Arabic word meaning “to invade” only when referencing Israel, and claimed there was no Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia due to its close relationship with Israel.
“I felt that everything I said had to fit in to the mainstream narrative, and that I wasn’t sharing a huge part of myself,” she says.
A., who also studied in Jordan last year, recounts professors referring to Hamas as “freedom fighters” and to Jordan’s neighbor to the west as “Palestine.”
Z., a student at a small northeastern private university, had one scary incident when he chanced upon a Muslim Brotherhood rally protesting the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. He had to hide his discomfort and disgust when hearing cries of “Jews are descendants of apes and pigs,” followed by, “We need to fight for Palestine.” During the semester, Z. was shocked to learn that some students “knew more about Neturei Karta than I did!” He reasons, “It fits into a certain narrative – this anti-Zionist fringe group was mainstream to them.”
For all four students, seeing Israeli flags laid across the campus for people to step on was particularly eye-opening. “I was walking with American friends for coffee,” E. says, “and an eight-year-old and his mother stepped on the Israel flag and spit on it.”
Maintaining Jewish identity
For the four students, returning to Israel up to four times during the semester provided a welcome break from their time in Jordan. Crossing back into Jordan wasn’t always simple, though. D. had no problem carrying tefillin in his suitcase when he flew from New York to Amman to begin the semester. But when he tried to come back into the country after spending Rosh Hashana in Israel, he was detained at the border and questioned for two hours.
He was told, “This is the law – you can’t go into Jordan!” Finally, a supervisor intervened and said in Arabic, “You will cover them up. Don’t take them out or use them in public!” D. did use his tefillin daily, but he made sure to pray in his room with the curtains closed.
D, who describes himself as “a religious Jew,” bought a crock pot, ate pita and hummus in some restaurants, and ate Shabbat meals with friends. Yet he deleted his phone’s Hebrew keyboard and went to Israel for most major holidays.
His true identity was nearly discovered while sitting in a Starbucks. A nearby woman saw Hebrew letters on his computer screen and whispered “Yahood!”
All students employed tricks while in Jordan to maintain their connection to Judaism and Israel. Student A. baked hamentashen for Purim and called them “American cookies.” E. had a secret “Jewish box” in her room for keeping matza during Passover, and she was careful to get her “Hebrew fix” of Israeli news sources while in the safety of her room. Z. made sure to consume (Jordanian) wine and pita each Friday night.
Student A. met a Palestinian Jordanian boyfriend through mutual friends. “It ended because he learned I was working at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace,” based in Tel Aviv. “He said, ‘Peres was a war criminal.’ We broke up – over ‘differences of opinion.’”
In a class of their own
The four students flew to Jordan to improve their language skills. Former meccas of Arabic study include Beirut, Cairo and Damascus – but these are no longer viable options. And Morocco, which currently offers an Arabic language immersion program, doesn’t offer exposure to the Jordanian Palestinian dialect which is of greatest interest to them, given their interests in future careers in diplomacy, military, academic and peace work between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
CET Academic Programs, through which all four studied abroad, has been sending students to Amman since the summer of 1994. While they don’t know the exact number of Jewish students studying in Jordan in any given year, a representative of the program said, “Anecdotally, I would say there are a number of Jewish students” with varying levels of connection to religion who participate in the program – “perhaps ranging from one to five on each term.”
The program is aware that the issue of disclosing religious identity is complicated. “We offer students the chance to disclose information about their identity, but many opt not to,” said the representative, who preferred not to give her name. She mentioned that there is time built in during pre-trip orientation to discuss such issues.
“Sharing connections to Israel, particularly citizenship, is not advised, given political tensions. We do our best to prepare students for the fact that they are highly likely to hear offensive and/or prejudiced language about Jewish people,” she said.
E feels differently. “When the program director saw my evaluation at the end of the semester, she was shocked I didn’t feel comfortable as a Jew. And I was shocked that she was shocked!”
To never return?
D. will return to Jordan this summer for further study of Arabic.
A has made aliya and currently serves in the IDF where soldiers in her unit initially thought that she was a Jordanian spy. She was recently asked to use her Arabic language skills as she escorted visiting Jordanian military officials back across the border. Looking back, she notes, “It is complicated – it opened up a narrative I never heard.”
Z., who describes himself as “all over the Israel spectrum,” with past involvements in J Street and AIPAC, says his greatest disappointment was at the lack of knowledge among the other American students. He concludes, “The peace treaty is only between governments – not between people. There are no people-to-people ties.”
E. concludes succinctly, “Being a Jew in Jordan sucked!”
Yet Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and who in 2011 was the first rabbi to be received in Bahrain by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, remains hopeful. “More young Jews and Muslims are recognizing that we share a common faith,” he says. “Our singular destiny must have caring and concern for each other.”