Tag Archives: Virginia Tech

Reflections on The Model Arab League Manual

CcdaDXRW0AIYtX2.jpg-largeToday, my dear friend Phil and I celebrate the publication of The Model Arab League Manual: A Guide To Preparation and Performance, published by Manchester University Press. This book has been in the making for over two years now, with our principle writing beginning in January 2014. At that point, I had been involved in the world of Model Arab League (MAL), a diplomatic simulation program sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) geared at high school and college students that mimics the procedures of the Arab League, for roughly ten years. MAL fosters leadership, public speaking, and knowledge of the Arab world, with committees ranging from Social, Political, and Environmental Affairs to special topics on the Status of Women and Heads of State. If you had told me in 2004 that I would go on to be a national leader in this program, let alone coauthor the book on the program, I would have laughed. Hard.

“What’s Eritrea?” – this simple question began my involvement with the Model Arab League (MAL) program. A question that, I admit, shows my complete ignorance in the early days.

I began my studies of the Arab world in 2003 as a freshman member of Converse College’s then-called “Model League of Arab States” program. Unlike many of the illustrious women in Converse’s now almost 30-year program, my career did not begin as auspiciously as most. Having failed to secure a spot on our team during our tryouts, I was asked later to join the team by my adviser, Dr. Joe P. Dunn. I was thrown into a world of study that I now find myself defending my dissertation on, knowing as little then about the Arab world as most American freshmen. In that first academic year, I met some colleagues I still work with regularly, including Dr. Philip D’Agati, then just masters student Phil from Northeastern University, the former Secretary-General of the National Conference cum chair of the Ministers of the Interior (Political Affairs) Committee chair.

My position at that conference was glorified “gopher” for the secretariat, brought along with my team because we did not have a debating spot open. Instead, within minutes of the beginning of the conference, I found myself representing the entire delegation of Eritrea, splitting my time between Ministers of the Interior and the Arab Court of Justice. I had almost no time to prepare my country’s position and, I’ll admit, had no idea that my country even existed.

“What’s Eritrea?” has become a joke between myself and Phil, who, as the lead student for the Eritrean delegation the previous year, took it upon himself (along with a few other Northeastern University students) to brief me on everything I would need to know in the ten minutes he had to spare. Their willingness to step in to help a completely green delegate from an opposing delegation was my first experience with my MAL family. My head delegate, Josie Fingerhut (now Major Josie Shaheen, United States Army), told me to find Phil, whom I had never met before, and ask him about Eritrea. “What’s Eritrea?” was the wrong question to ask, which Phil pointed out immediately.

“It’s ‘Where’s Eritrea,’ and clearly we have a lot of work to do.”

Indeed.

That work, found in countless binders (this was before the days of laptops in committee and Wi-Fi access) that still grace my home office, has become a life’s project, and I still reference them when working on my courses and research. In fact, this program has touched parts of my life I never would have expected. When applying for my first job out of graduate school in 2010, the person doing my interview for a communications position at the First Presbyterian Church of Athens, Georgia saw Model Arab League on my resume. “If you thrived in that program, you can handle anything we’ll throw at you,” she said. The reputation of the MAL program, which as students we help to form through our involvement, exists outside of political science programs and university campuses.

I got the job.

The value of this program can be seen in the lives of both the students I matriculated with and those I have since advised. The MAL program, and NCUSAR, has afforded us all so many opportunities, including summer Arabic language study in the region and specialized two-week fellowships to individual member states. Alums of the program have gone on to work for the United States military, NGOs, the State Department, and yes, even to careers in academia studying the region. Upon attending the 2013 Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference, I was delighted to see so many nametags, mine included, proudly displaying “Alumni” ribbons.

While pursuing my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, I began a small program with our political science undergrads, bringing two students, Rachel Kirk and Elizabeth Womack, to the 2012 Southeast Regional Model Arab League. Our fledgling partial delegation, which managed somehow to come in seventh when only present in three of the eight committees, led to the reestablishment of the Regional and International Organizations program at Virginia Tech, for which I taught the corresponding course and served as faculty adviser.

From 2003-2012, I held nearly every position possible in the world of Model Arab League: delegate, justice, vice-chair, regional chair, national Chief Justice, and faculty adviser. Only a few others from our student ranks can say the same, and in 2012, I was awarded the NCUSAR “Model Arab League Lifetime Achievement Award” – not too shabby for someone who still is not quite 30 (though one does wonder from time to time if one has peaked when achieving a Lifetime Achievement Award before even graduating from their Ph.D. program).

Virginia Tech Delegation at CARMAL

Virginia Tech’s 2013 MAL Delegation winning awards in every committee at the Capital Area Regional MAL.

If someone had told me freshman year that I would end up being the faculty adviser for a MAL team, let alone would receive an award for my service to this program, I doubt I would have believed them. It was only through participating in the Model Arab League program that I developed the skills necessary to hold this position, and for the experiences Joe Dunn, Dr. John Duke Anthony, and others have granted me, I am forever grateful. I cannot describe the pride I experienced as my students prepared for the 2013 Capital Area Regional Model Arab League conference, nor the utter joy I felt when  they earned their first “Best Delegation” award, sweeping individual awards in every single committee. This is why I sought to start a team at Virginia Tech—to help give students the same opportunities that have helped shape me into the academic I am now.

The Model Arab League Manual is the culmination of over decade’s joys and frustrations, all shared with one of the best colleagues I’ve ever had. Thank you so much to Manchester University Press, NCUSAR, and all of our former students and colleagues who helped us delve through mountains of paperwork, PDFs, and archival research to make this book a reality.

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Sun Salutations in Shul

In June, my partner and I drove from Blacksburg to the Poconos to spend time with his family and on the return trip, we visited his Shanti Mama – Big Mama to many of those there.  It was definitely a kindred spirits sort of moment, wherein Big Mama and I immediately began speaking of our mutual love of comparative religion.  He took S. aside at one point and began talking with him about the connections between Hinduism and Judaism and how he and I could find much common ground between our religious backgrounds.  I joined into the conversation and (as usual) derailed it to other things, but the ideas stuck in the back of my head.  Part of the wonderful challenge of being in an interfaith/intercultural relationship is having to navigate these differences in religious traditions.

Yesterday, when I attended my first yoga class at Hillel at Virginia Tech, the concepts I had discussed with Big Mama resurfaced in my mind.  My Hillel has partnered with Blacksburg Yoga Collective to offer donation-based yoga classes once a week at at our Jewish center.  The new Hillel center has many multipurpose sorts of rooms at the center, so I was quite shocked when our yoga session was held in the main room normally reserved for services.

If you are unfamiliar with the Malcolm Rosenberg Hillel Center, the sacred space is actually one of my very favorite.  It is simple, multipurpose, and not one piece of furniture or decoration in the room stands out to me as ostentatious and unnecessary.  Natural light streamed through the room coming in from narrow windows starting halfway up the walls and going up to the top of the vaulted ceiling.  It was the first time I had seen the space not set up for worship – the chairs were stacked at the periphery of the room, the ark housing the Torah was closed, and yoga mats and blocks were stacked at the side of the room.  Sunlight poured in, heating window-shaped blocks of warmth on the carpet under our bare feet.

I was immediately struck by how awesome (an overused worse, to be sure, but in this religious setting awe-struck was how I felt) it was that we were practicing an ancient Indian form of bodily and mental meditation in a religious space dedicated to a (not quite as equally) ancient monotheistic religion from Palestine.

I will admit that with regard to the meditative quality of yoga, as with most meditation, I am completely unable to clear my mind or focus solely on my breath or the alignment of my body.  And often, when trying to ease into a particularly difficult pose, my lack of poker face shows the instructor (in this case, Thea, one of the best yoga instructors I have ever had) just how much I loathe them for a single instant (after which, I attempt to, you know, remember that I’m there to relax and care for my body and not to have angry thoughts and facial expressions…).

So it should not at all have come as a shock to me that my mind wandered back to Big Mama’s words about the similarities between Hinduism and Judaism.  And, being in a space where I’ve sung Kol Nidre, where I’ve attended Shabbat services several times, I began to hear the Hindu-inspired words from our instructor and attempt to put them into a Jewish context.

There are two things I cannot shake from brain thoughts yesterday, the first being Thea’s reminders to find support in the earth below us, to press our hands into the ground below us, to place our weight back onto our feet that ground us.  We have a phrase in Hebrew, tikkun olam, which translates to “repairing the world.”  If you research the word olam in Strong’s, there are connections with this word and eretz, or earth/land, in the Hebrew Bible.  So often my brain hears tikkun olam as “repairing the earth,” however etymologically problematic.  Tikkun olam is the directive we have as G-d’s created beings to care for or be stewards of creation.  In our yogic practice, instead of repairing the world, we actively used the earth, or land, or world to repair ourselves.  We found strength pushing against the ground beneath us, finding stability and strength in its immovable, constant nature.

In Christianity, there is a Golden Rule, given down by Jesus:  Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  In most of the World Religions textbooks I’ve taught from, they point out that “Eastern” (I use this with a slight rolling of my eyes.  Eastern from what POV?) religions generally have a version of this rule in the negative sense:  Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto yourself.  It is a difference point of view on the same basic concept.  Of course, we cannot just call this something unique – these texts refer to this negative sense of the Golden Rule as the Silver Rule, and those of us who grew up under the influence of the modern Olympics know that Silver Is Not As Good As Gold.  The Silver Rule, if we choose to call it that, is not inferior to the Golden Rule; it is simply a different way of describing the same concept.

As I stretched and pushed my body ever so slightly past where it was willing to do, finding strength in my breath and the ground beneath me, I was struck how my yogic practice was the inverse, or a different point of view, on the same practice only a few weeks ago I had done in that same sanctuary space.  Instead of vowing to help repair the world, the world – the earth – was repairing me, was helping me to realign my sore joints and come as close to achieving five feet of height as I ever will.

The second thing I was struck by was the sunlight itself.  As part of our morning practice, we performed the surya namaskara (sun salutation) multiple times.  I have performed yoga in multiple states, over about a decade, in various spaces, but never in a space with that much sunlight washing over us.  In college, yoga class (my PE credit) was held in an auxiliary gym with no windows.  At Virginia Tech, our on-campus classes are held in an, again windowless, gymnasium.  When I lived in Athens, my favorite classes were held in an old warehouse, again, sans sunlight.

To perform a sun salutation, in my Jewish house of worship, while being mindful the creation words of Genesis 1, was powerful.  It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I left for yoga, bundled up in a hoodie, but inside the sanctuary, I was not cold at all in my yoga pants and tank top.  It was the first time I had ever truly performed a sun salutation (and I’d never realized I hadn’t!), and the feeling was almost overwhelming.

I am one that tends to get quite sad during the winter months.  The shortening days and the lack of sunlight (we don’t call it Bleaksburg for nothing) really does get to me.  Even as much as I love rain, days on end of bleak weather can bring me down.  This year, I have read/reread about 100 books preparing for my comprehensive examinations for my Ph.D., and I spent as much of that reading time outside as I could, either on my back porch or, for most of this summer, in California, soaking up the sun like a lifesaver.  In fact, I think this summer was the first time in my life I’ve been even remotely tan (yes, Dad, I did wear sunscreen).  And the fact that most of the major changes in my life that have come in the last year have been supported by my partner whose name literally means Sun was not lost on me as I stood there, toes grounding me to the earth, beams of light flooding the room.

I doubt I would have felt this way if we had had our practice in any other room of Hillel.  The merging of two forms of religious practice, and the meaning that can come from interfaith dialogue, should never be taken for granted.  Shanti mama, you are right; there is much that can be found in common between Hinduism and Judaism.  I had not, however, expected to discover some of these connections so powerfully as I did at my Temple during what was supposed to be just me getting up that day and heading to yoga.

“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Okay, so here’s the transcript of my talk from last night.  I ad-libbed some stuff about questions from yesterday’s blog post.  I plan to rewrite it for publication, so any thoughts/suggestions/haikus would be appreciated.

“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Thank you, and thank you to everyone who worked together to put on this event:  ASPECT, Religion and Culture, Political Science, and the professors here.  Rather than try to do a critique of the film as a whole and somehow fit it all into the body of Arendt’s work, I instead decided to bring out four key points from the film that stood out to me (which actually might be doable in ten minutes):  Arendt’s own Judaism, the status of Arab Jews, the position of the bureaucrat, and the funding for the film itself.

No outward signs of Judaism in her house:

Arendt was Jewish, but culturally so.  She was a secular Jew, and her home showed it.  There are none of the tchotchkes associated with Judaism on the shelves, no mezuzah on the door.  Even in Jerusalem, she maintains her Western appearance and does not dress as traditionally as the other women she interacts with.  Revisionism to make Arendt seem more “Jewish” may have done something for her character in the film, but the film pulled no punches, showing her as others perceived her and keeping her in this motif.

Arab Jews have no voice/presence in film:

Along with that attention to historical accuracy, Arendt’s personal beliefs on types of Jews shows up obliquely in the film.  Arendt is known for believing that German Judaism was the best Judaism, remarking that it was lucky for Eichmann to have three German Jewish judges in Israel, who she called the “best of German Jewry.”[1]   She stated to Karl Jaspers once that the Israeli police force “gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic.”[2] (xvii).  This, in comparison to her championing the rights of Arab Palestinians seems strange.[3]  It is remarked upon in the film that she never quite forgave Germany for letting her down as a German, yet she is inseparable from Germany in culture.  The film portrays this subtly; while she passes Arab Jews and Eastern European Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, she does not interact with them.  All of her Jewish friends are German Jews and she argues with them from the point of view of German continental philosophy.  The film did an excellent job keeping this reality in place, in spite of the fact that it makes Arendt look less than favorable to non-German Jews.

Bureaucrats:

The status of the bureaucrat comes up often in the film, as in Arendt’s work, and has definite applicability to discussions of the modern Israeli state.  Part of Arendt’s arguments for the banality of evil are the bureaucratic persona of figures like Eichmann—dedicated pencil-pushers who just followed orders.  I’ll go out on a limb of controversiality here and say that these arguments are fascinating when one considers some of the more contentious policies of the Israeli government with regard to border control and settlements in the West Bank.  Many of these policies, which Arendt herself cautioned against, could be seen as being able to be perpetuated by a banality within the bureaucracy of Israel.  Groups like J Street represent American Jews against the policies of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and there are many op-ed writers within Israel who speak out often against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, yet these policies continue.

When Arendt criticizes Israel’s right to even try Eichmann, her colleague Kurt Blumenfeld responds, “Be a little patient with us,” implying that Israel is a new state bound to make some mistakes.  But how long is too long to remain being patient?  At what point does “Be a little patient with us” become a crutch for not having to take a closer look at divisive policies?  If nothing else, this film spurs the audience toward reevaluating the current state of affairs in Israel through Arendt’s lens.

Funding of the film:

I’d like to conclude with the funding and the making of the film.  According to Heinrich Blücher, “History more than one man” was on trial during the Eichmann trial.  It is with this point of view on history rather than individual that I do wonder why make this film? Why now?  Two Jewish film funds, the Israel Film Fund (a 501c3 nonprofit) and The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund (under the auspices of the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint venture between the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality), partially sponsored the film.  But why?  Why now?  Was it to redeem Arendt’s reputation amongst a new generation of Jews?  Or was it to teach a new generation why Arendt’s views were dangerous to the Israeli state?

I was left unclear by the film itself.  While the audience is naturally pulled toward supporting Arendt, both through Barbara Sukowa’s stunning performance and the weight of Arendt’s words herself, the negative responses to her work in the film far outweigh the positives.  Arendt’s rousing defense of her work before the students and faculty of the New School at the end of the film leaves the audience thinking the film will have a positive dénouement, yet the mood is ruined by her dear friend and colleague Hans Jonas not being convinced and disowning her.  The film ends as it began, Arendt alone in her apartment, listlessly smoking a cigarette, isolated with her thoughts.

Characters in the film talk about how Arendt is asking questions about things best laid to rest, but why?  Simply because the questions make us uncomfortable?  And what does it say that Israel funded a film that reopens all these questions?  The good news is, we are asking these questions.  By having a panel such as this, we’re trying to find out how Arendt’s work is still valuable today, and I would definitely argue that it is, indeed, valuable.


[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xviii.
[2] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xvii.
[3] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil, 13.