Bulding a bridge of peace by studying Arabic in Israel

What’s a nice Jewish girl like Na’amah Razon doing in a saf like this?

Saf is Arabic for “classroom,” which is where Razon will be setting up shop for most of the upcoming summer. As winner of this year’s Haas/Koshland Memorial Award, Razon has enrolled in an intensive two-month Arabic language course at Givat Haviva, a center devoted to Arab-Israeli coexistence located in central Israel.

The Haas/Koshland Memorial Award is given annually to a promising Bay Area college graduate who shows a strong commitment to Israel.

Raised in both Israel and the United States, Razon is already fluent in English and Hebrew. But now, the Stanford University senior wants to add Arabic to her collection of languages.

“I believe peace can happen in the region,” says the 21-year-old Razon. “The most important way to get to know someone is to learn their language.”

She should be close to fluent by the end of her immersion course. Razon will hit the books 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Razon traces her interest in Arabic language and culture back to her 2002 summer internship with Human Rights Watch. For 10 weeks she worked in Washington, D.C., helping compile a report on suicide bombers by translating Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli press documents.

One of her co-workers there was a Muslim woman from the United Arab Emirates. Over time, as the two collaborated, Razon expanded her views beyond what she had come to believe since childhood.

“I had seen Israel as a pristine place,” she says. “For a long time I was very much on the defensive, but learning more about world conflict elsewhere and the Middle East allowed me to critique Israel as any other country. It’s what makes a democracy. Human Rights Watch is an organization that believes all people deserve human rights. I’m passionate about that.”

Passion does seem to drive Razon, who was born in Pennsylvania, but Ping-Ponged between America and Israel for most of her life. Her grandparents immigrated to Israel in 1948 from Argentina and Turkey, so Razon grew up steeped in Zionism. An exemplary student, she had no trouble getting into Stanford, where she majored in anthropology. She spent her junior year at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University

Razon is still an ardent supporter of Israel, and hopes to settle there one day. Her goal is to become a medical doctor specializing in infectious diseases. And by learning Arabic, she hopes to be able to communicate with anyone she encounters in the region.

While many of her peers are still trying to figure out what to wear next Saturday night, Razon is a young woman on a far-sighted mission. Getting the languages down is just part of the story.

“Growing up in Israel and the USA, I got mixed ideas about my identity and my place,” she says. “But coming to Stanford opened me to new ideas. You don’t always get more than one perspective, but the purpose [of education] is to look for the multiple perspectives, the many strands of the story.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.