The Evergreen State College is known for its diverse and unique programs and pathways. Its faculty strive to create dialogues about a variety of modern issues to help people better understand the world and connect with each other. Professor Nancy Koppelman teaches a course called “Many Israels” to help students dive into the foundational history, cultural norms and conflicts of Israel. The course brings a great deal of humanity to a topic that is widely misunderstood, and many of her students have felt that it shed an important light on the nature of modern Israel and its people.

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Israel is comprised of a diverse group of people from a range of religious and ethnic backgrounds. While in Israel, Nancy met Rabbi Sharon Shalom, an Ethiopian Jew who fled at the age of eight to become an Israeli citizen.  Photo credit: Nancy Koppelman

Nancy has been interested in Israeli history for many years and spent a lot of time teaching herself about the history of Israel and Palestine. A few years ago, she discovered a faculty fellowship program offered through the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Nancy wanted to be able to dive deeper into the real topics and issues that Israel faces, issues beyond those that Western political perspectives tend to take up. So she applied for and was granted the fellowship. For two weeks Nancy had the opportunity to learn at Brandeis with fellow professors from around the world, and then travel to Israel for 2 weeks to experience and better understand the influences and cultures of the state.

After being exposed to the realities of Israel’s people, including Palestinians who are citizens of the country and those who are not, it became clear to her that there are many misperceptions about this state. “People in the U.S. can benefit from understanding the region better, perhaps inspired by but well beyond their strong opinions about it,” she says. One of the expectations of the fellowship program was to produce a syllabus to teach an Israel studies course, which is how “Many Israels” was created. Nancy taught the class for the first time last summer and brought it back this July. “It was a great success,” she recalls. “This summer enrollment doubled.”

The course provides both a wide view and specific examples of issues and factors contributing to the character of the country and its current conflicts, both with itself and with its neighbors and the Palestinians living, in troubling ways, under Israeli control. The premise is that over the years and within the U.S. and in Israel itself, people have many versions of the country; hence the title “Many Israels.” People have a wide range of perceptions of modern Israel but limited knowledge, which is why Nancy believes it is so important to discuss its history. “Before I started to study the country, I’d been told that the situation is so complicated that it’s practically impossible to understand. With the support of the Schusterman Center and the other faculty fellows, I learned that it IS possible to grasp the complexities and think in new ways about it.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that Israel’s conflicts are easy to solve,” she explains. “In order to understand, it’s important to go back to a time when people thought quite differently than we think now. That history helped to shape the present.”

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During Nancy’s trip to Israel, she had the pleasure of visiting wonderful sites that capture the rich history and religious integration present in Israel. Her group visited a Mosque in the Arab city of Sahknin in northern Israel. Photo credit: Nancy Koppelman

Many Israels focuses on five main topics: religion, immigration, state formation and structure, land as territory and environment, and onlookers and visionaries. Through these topics, students gain insight into the dominant forces of the Ottoman Empire, which had occupied Palestine from the 16th century until after World War One, and its continued influence today. They also learn how Israel eventually came to declare its independence and maintain its existence as a state. The course ends with perspectives of Israelis of all faiths and Palestinians living under Israeli control, and those looking from the outside in. Nancy thinks it is essential to understand varying opinions and schools of thought in order to grasp Israel’s character. “Visionaries in Palestine and Israel are working together to bridge divides and find new paths forward,” shares Nancy. “There is a lot of mutual cooperation and mutual support that isn’t making it into the news.”

Because this topic is so vastly discussed and often misconceived, it is an important area for people to take the time to understand. These issues can feel overwhelming and difficult, especially because of the different portrayals of Israel in the media. “I wanted to get a historical understanding of Israel and Palestine in an apolitical classroom so I could get a blank slate to develop my own political opinions on the topics,” shares student Michael Bilodeau. The course doesn’t engage in the bias often present in news outlets across the political spectrum, and is structured to encourage students to think for themselves based on historical information and real-life evidence.

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While in Israel, Nancy noticed that the women’s bathrooms were consciously designed to cater to both Muslim and Jewish women. The spigot is part of a religious Muslim ritual for washing feet, and the blue pitcher is part of a religious Jewish ritual for washing hands. She felt it was an important reminder of coexistence that is central to Israel. Photo credit: Nancy Koppelman

One of the most interesting and impactful aspects of this class were the guest speakers Nancy brought in. She featured Osama Swidan and Michael Fried, who are Arab and Jewish colleagues at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She also did an interview for her students with Barbara Ribakov, who is one of the founders of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a nonprofit that brings Ethiopian Jews to Israel. “Nancy went out of her way to bring some real voices to the class, and it had a huge impact on me,” student Huma Burton-Whitt shares. “Just being able to get direct experiences and personal ethnographies really brought an essential humanity to this conversation.”

Now that the course is over, the students felt that they had some major takeaways from the program that they can use going forward. “It has given me a broader perspective on how both sides actually are, not just what I perceive both sides to be,” says student Valerie Levitas. “I have a deeper understanding and more three-dimensional knowledge of how people there live, and that is incredibly valuable.” The class was so impactful that Huma and Valerie are looking to do internships with an organization called Friends of Roots, a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence, and transformation founded by Palestinians in the West Bank and their Israeli neighbors in the settlements. They are eager to get involved to help support efforts to bring these two sides closer together.

The students in Nancy’s class as a whole felt that what they learned was extremely enlightening and provided the context needed to look at Israel in a new way. The course will likely be offered again, so be sure to check back in 2022 to register and experience the many different Israels for yourself.

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Nancy has had the opportunity to learn from many experienced scholars with exceptional insight on Israel, and on Jewish and Arab culture. Pictured are two Jewish Israeli academics Sammy Smooha and Elie Rekhess with former Arab Knesset member Hanna Swaid. Photo credit: Nancy Koppelman

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