A Hebrew Uni experience
In early January 2017, Jennifer Keene left Melbourne for the three-week ‘Mishpatim’ course at Hebrew University. This survey course in Israeli and international law would earn her one course credit for her Juris Doctor law studies at the University of Melbourne…Jennifer is not Jewish. She tells her story:
I chose this course because of my educational and professional background in protection of civilians under international humanitarian law—or the laws of war—and work on legal reform in Egypt. Mishpatim promised a focus on a perspective I had yet to experience—that of Israel—and an opportunity to immerse myself in the multicultural and complex city that is Jerusalem. It also, spiritually and emotionally, would be a special place to visit as a Christian.
Unsurprisingly, I came away from the course with a lot more. As a law student, I found it striking that my greatest lesson from this trip was outside of the parameters of a typical law course: a simple lesson on listening and observing.
Going to Israel, I was an outsider. Although I knew academically about the Middle East, I knew very little about the socio-economic and political domestic spheres in Israel. I knew no Hebrew, and only elementary Arabic. I am American. I am not Jewish. I had never been to Israel before.
This was a bit daunting as I arrived at Ben Gurion. It had been years since I had been in a country where I couldn’t sound out the alphabet or eek out the basics for ‘one falafel please.’ Even with a brilliant day of introductory lectures, I still felt like I was going to be behind for the entire three weeks.
However, in one of our early classes on international law, our distinguished guest lecturer said, ‘[o]ne thing that makes Israel unique in the international community is that everyone has an opinion on Israel.’ That assertion stuck with me, because it’s true: conversations about Palestine’s potential entry into the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court dominated my second year of graduate school; law school friends asked me about the Trump administration’s consideration of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; family had asked if I’d be safe…
As an outsider, I recognised in that lecture that this experience was an opportunity to embrace knowing very little, and to simply observe.
That was uncomfortable. It was humbling. But, in a way, it was also empowering. It meant that I spent less time searching for affirmations of what I thought I knew, and more time asking questions. That space for curiosity enabled me to ask of our visit with Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez how she felt coming to the Court not as a lawyer, but as an academic, and how her viewpoint as a woman on the Court differed from her male colleagues. That space for curiosity meant that I made time to go visit a women’s cooperative group providing schooling and social opportunities to children with disabilities in the Aida and al-Azzeh refugee camps outside Bethlehem (and learned to make maklouba!) That space for curiosity encouraged me to take a four-hour ‘Meet the Ultra-Orthodox’ tour with our guide Gitty, who showed me what power there is in simplicity and deep faith.
Most meaningfully for me, it was that space for curiosity that led me to ask in our class meeting with the father of a slain Israeli soldier and the wife of a slain Palestinian husband about how we should talk about our experience once we returned to Australia. Their response? ‘Learn everything that you can, and don’t take the conflict or any preconceived prejudices home.’
Embracing being an outsider was a challenge, but keeping my mind and my eyes wide open meant that I was able to experience fully at least a small part of the multi-cultural, multilingual, multi-religious community that is Jerusalem. Thanks to that, I left Jerusalem, and Israel, a more humble, introspective, and intellectually curious person than I arrived. For that, and for this opportunity, I am truly, truly grateful.
And it is with considerable thanks to the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University for making my participation in this experience possible.