Spotlight on Undergraduate Research: Morghan Cyr (T'20)

Morghan Cyr (Trinity '20) visited the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University during the Fall 2018 term, with help from the Shore Scholars program in Jewish Studies.  Here she describes her experience, and continues his bi-weekly blog of his insights:

With the start of classes and thus the start of the semester, my time abroad has ceased to be a whirlwind. However, it is a whirlwind of blessings and unique opportunities that I will forever be grateful for. As the semester is starting to settle down, I have begun to process and enjoy the content of the classes I am taking and am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to engage with other students on subjects I am intellectually interested in, rather than just language studies.


I am taking five classes while I am studying in Israel, one more class than the usual workload due to a policy of the Duke Arabic department. I do not mind taking an extra class while I am abroad though because at Hebrew University, there are so many cool classes that I wish that I could take them all. In order to ensure that not all blog posts are the length of a thesis paper, I will do my best to highlight only a couple of classes in each blog post.

To start off my week, I have four hours of Arabic FusHa instruction. To say that is a long class would be an understatement; that being said, I can truly feel my understanding of the Arabic language getting much stronger and I am excited to continue studying the language. I, honestly, never thought I would hear myself say that, but my professor here in Jerusalem is one of the best professors I have had period, let alone in Arabic, and has saved my hope for learning the language.

After Arabic, I have After Nazism. Now, the name itself is slightly misleading as to what you may think. When you hear the name, at least when I first heard it, I imagined a class that talked about the physical movement of people and the actions taken by people in response to the Holocaust. I was thoroughly surprised and excited to find out I was wrong! After Nazism is a class that is delving into the philosophy surrounding Nazism and the Jewish post-Nazi thought. The philosophy and thought that we are looking at is addressing the concept of Jewish identity and how it relates to the Western world. After the first two weeks of classes, we have been primarily focused on the works of George Steiner, who is known best for his commentary on Hitler and Jewish identity. In one of Steiner’s works, he wrote a fake speech for Hitler in a scenario where Hitler is actually brought to trial rather than meet his fate in a bunker. His argument in court can be summarized in two main ideas: one, his war on the Jews was actually a war against God, based on the idea that the Jews were the ones who “created God” and “conscience” and two, that the Holocaust is the reason that Israel now exists and for that, he should be thanked and not brought to trial. While both ideas are utterly ridiculous, as Steiner is pointing out in his writing, Steiner does bring to light a remarkable question: how does one define the Jewish identity and Israel in the Western world both in relation to and other than the Holocaust? Is it the correct thinking in attempting to define a 5000+ year old people in relationship to events within the last century? What are other ways to interpret Jewish thought besides the Western liberal context? These questions are actually not as obvious that you would initially think because the Holocaust is so prominent in our historical memory and I leave every class with more questions than I entered with. Unsurprisingly, I look forward into delving much deeper into this class and attempting to find a somewhat satisfactory answer.

The next class I am taking is called the Challenges of Regional Cooperation. This class is a political science class focused on international relations. Right now, we are primarily going over introductory IR terms and frameworks, in order to look deeper into the case studies that we will be covering later in the class. For the semester final, we are required to write a 20 page seminar paper on a topic of our choice. In relationship to the broader Middle East, I thinking about the relationship of Turkey and the EU. Stay tuned to see how well that goes!

The next class I am in is Israeli Politics, and, as you can guess, it is a wild ride. On the first day of class, my professor came in screaming and I do not think the class has calmed down since. As the students in the class come with a variety of backgrounds in politics, we have been doing some readings about concepts that we will later discuss in relationship to Israel. We just went over the concept of national self-determination and I am excited to see how that future discussion goes over in class.

My final class on the docket is called Battle Over the Bible. Ominous, right? It has proved to be just as intriguing as the title. To start off with, I did not know that the Jews and the Christians use different versions of the Hebrew Bible: the Masoretic text (Jewish) and the Septuagint (Christian). For the most part, the translations are not huge discrepancies; however, there are actually passages in either texts that lead to philosophical differences and these have proved to be a place of conflict for the two groups in the past. An example of this is in Isaiah chapter 7, a common Messianic prophesy referred to by Christians. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “virgin” is used in describing the birth of Emmanuel. In the Masoretic text, the Hebrew word for “young girl” is used in describing this birth. While likely similar in meaning, this difference in verbiage has caused quite the divide between the two religions throughout the years. (Like a new religion kind of divide, you know?) On top of this, further conflict followed due to incorrect translations of the text made in early distribution, like the Vulgate translation (a cross between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint translated by St. Jerome) of the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 34, the Vulgate translates Moses’ face as being horned after God spoke to him on Mt. Sinai. In the Masoretic text, the same Hebrew word appears, without short vowels, and is translated to mean radiating or shining. The difference of short vowels in the Hebrew language is big enough to be the foundation for future anti-Semitic myths, like the idea that Jews have horns. This has just been the first two weeks of class and we have not even introduced the Muslim narrative and perspective into our discussion, but, considering how interesting these first two weeks have been, I am sure things will get even more intriguing.

West Bank Tour

This weekend, I went on a speed tour through the West Bank to Ramallah, Jericho, and Bethlehem. While I have been to two of these cities before, I thoroughly enjoyed this tour because it hit some of the most fantastic parts of the West Bank. In Jericho, I saw the ancient ruins of the oldest city in the world! Ramallah was different to experience because it was a totally different vibe from Israel. It was very blatantly Arab and reminded me more of Jordan than it did of Israel. This was ironic considering Ramallah is in a territory surrounded by Israeli control, while the city itself is under control and the political center of the Palestinian Authority. This feeling of being entirely detached from the Israeli world that I have come to know permeated the West Bank. Being Christian, I am rather partial to Bethlehem. I love the Church of the Nativity and plan on attending Christmas midnight mass in December. I am a huge fan of street art as well, which is something that Bethlehem has plenty of. It is art of the people and by the people, an expression of anger and sadness and longing for peace and autonomy in their country. As I was walking up the side of the barrier wall, I felt sadness and frustration at the political situation that the Palestinians face on a daily basis in a land that denies them the basic right to thrive, but also one that they have lived on for years upon years.

Lara AlQasem

Lara AlQasem is an American Master’s student studying at Hebrew University this semester. Her trip to get into Israel, however, was not easy. Lara AlQasem was the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization known for championing boycott and divestment sanctions (BDS) against Israel. A law was passed in Israel last year that banned supporters of BDS from entering the country, so as you would imagine, Lara was going to face issues getting into the country. Except it was not that simple. Lara obtained a student visa from her Israeli Consulate before flying to Israel. This would normally indicate that she was allowed to enter the country with no issue. But that would not call for a section in my blog, would it? She was detained at the airport upon her arrival to Israel and was detained for over two weeks in reportedly despicable living conditions. Instead of accepting her deportation, she appealed the decision to deport her and was denied entry again. Then she appealed the appeal, which is virtually unheard of. Normally only one appeal is granted in cases like these. She got her second appeal and won. I have been told she has been attending classes with paparazzi following her around. While I understand what she did was unheard of, I am also sure that she would like to live her life in peace now. I mention Lara for two reasons: one, this is still a hot topic being discussed in my classes and with my friends and, two, because it truly draws into question the identity of Israel as a democracy. Lara was a peaceful protester with links to BDS a few years ago, but she was painted as a terrorist to the state of Israel. Is the law a statement of the values and fears of the nation or is it a statement of the values and fears of a government unwilling to be held accountable for its actions? I would argue the latter. Hebrew University even joined on Lara’s appeal, arguing that while it does not support the boycott of Israel, it does support the right to knowledge and freedom of academia. BDS is not a terrorist organization and is a form of peaceful protest against the occupation of the West Bank. While it is often brandished by those who are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, the support of it does not indicate a person’s view either way. I, myself, do not support BDS, but I do think it should encourage discussion and an attempt to understand the complaints that warrant this protest. Lara AlQasem’s fight truly calls into question what a lot of people have been asking prior to and after this law: is Israel democratic if it is unwilling to allow different ideas and critiques of the government into its country?

Read more about Morghan's experience here: