Abigail Martuscello is a Gilman Scholarship Recipient.
Israel is not your average place to study abroad. Nestled on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, this country, roughly the size of New Jersey is packed with history, culture, and political momentum. Unless you’re of the Jewish faith, most people associate Israel with either the Bible or with its seemingly intractable conflict with the Palestinians who also inhabit the land. Studying abroad in Israel, specifically, the northern port city of Haifa, offers a deeper look into the country and what you see may surprise you and turn any or all preconceived notions on their heads. Here are two that stuck with me the most.
I had incubated the idea of studying abroad in Israel for over a year and during both my dreaming phase and preparation phase of studying abroad, the question I got the most from friends and family is “Is Israel safe?”. The answer is a resounding yes. I put off travel to Israel for years under the assumption/fear that my safety would be compromised in the country. It was only until I had extensive conversations with Israeli ex-pats that I became convinced that Israel is just as safe as any other Western country. Once I arrived, I realized this as fact as Israelis take safety and security very, very seriously and it permeates every aspect of culture both on and offcampus. On-campus, there are gates, 24-hour security, and personnel that join off-campus field trips. Off-campus, everywhere I traveled to also felt wholly safe, even at night. If one practices the regular safety measures of being in a city and being aware of your surroundings, then Israel is just as safe as any American city, if not more so. One of the most dangerous things one could do is attend a political gathering or demonstration which, namely in Jerusalem, could increase your chances of being in a situation that could quickly escalate. I would also like to point out that although I did not travel to the West Bank/Palestine during my Spring semester in Haifa, I have traveled to that area (Bethlehem) in the past and also felt safe.
Secondly, the amount of diversity in Haifa, Israel is astounding. Haifa is by no means an Israeli/Palestine utopia, but it surely is an exemplary city in terms of coexistence between the two and other diverse populations. Here you will meet Arabs and Jews, both secular and religious, Arab-Israelis, Bedouins, Russians, and the list goes on. Campus life flourishes with people from all walks of life and one of the most rewarding and memorable aspects of my time in Haifa were the evenings. Almost every evening students would congregate either outside or indoor common area and we would chat and get to know each other. It is from here that I got opportunities to have in-depth discussions with a Bedouin woman studying theater, a Muslim Arab-Israeli man who explained the difficulties of dating in a traditionalist culture, a Christian Arab woman who expressed the same – just to name a few. From these evening chats on campus I have a cache of examples of illuminating conversations from a variety of people representing different cultural and religious perspectives. No topic was off-limits, and discussions of politics, religion and everyday aspects abounded. The climate both on and off campus in Haifa was accepting, inclusive and a beautiful example of an often-overlooked aspect of Israel.