Beyond the Headlines

Students Gain Personal Insight Into World Events From Political Insiders

As the 2016 presidential election kicks into high gear and conflict in the Middle East continues, topics like homeland security, immigration, international negotiations and the campaign process are constant subjects of debate in the American news cycle. But at Yeshiva University, students have the unique opportunity to dive beyond these headlines and gain a rare firsthand glimpse into the innermost circles of American and Israeli politics in courses that integrate the University’s first-rate academic expertise with personal insight from real players on the political stage, such as former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Joseph Lieberman Chair in Public Policy and Public Service, and former Ambassador Danny Ayalon, Rennert Visiting Professor of Foreign Policy Studies.

“We are fortunate to have an amazing ensemble of courses covering a range of exciting topics and taught by an exceptional faculty,” said Dr. Joseph Luders, David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in Political Science at Stern College for Women.

That includes courses like American Politics Seminar, co-taught by Luders and Lieberman, in which students get the opportunity to study the 2016 presidential race through the lens of an actual former presidential candidate with decades of experience in the Senate; Statecraft Analysis: Israeli Foreign Policy and Israeli Foreign Policy—the first taught exclusively by Ayalon and the second in conjunction with Dr. Ruth Bevan, the David W. Petegorsky Chair in Political Science at Yeshiva College—both of which introduce students to Israel’s main foreign affairs challenges and contributions to global politics through the eyes of a high-ranking former diplomat; and Arab-Israeli Conflict, a course taught by former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Dr. Charles Freilich, which grounds students in the comprehensive study of rising tensions in the Middle East, especially ongoing acts of domestic terror in Israel.

“We strive to make our courses not only academically rigorous, but also personally relevant to the everyday lives of students,” said Luders. “Students care about a range of topics from Israel and terrorism to inequality and environmental degradation, and we want them to be able to follow their passion in the subject matter of our courses. Our courses teach them to take an issue apart, critically analyze competing perspectives—including their own assumptions—and conduct independent research to find the answers, thereby arriving at a belief that is empirically grounded, not mere opinion. In doing so, they go far beyond the headlines to comprehend the fundamental dynamics of social change.”

“The practitioners bring tremendous insight with them from the world of everyday politics,” said Bevan. “The focus on Israel in our department is something that makes our study here especially distinctive—our students have many opportunities to enrich their knowledge of the political situation of this country that is dear and important to them.”

“There is only so much you can learn from textbooks and in the classroom,” said Avi Strauss, a junior majoring in political science and biology. “Learning from politicians with decades of experience in the field itself is a tremendous opportunity and privilege. In this regard, my experience with Ambassador Ayalon has been truly enlightening: it isn’t enough to just know the facts about Israeli foreign policy—I have to understand how those facts interact with the global political stage and how to use my knowledge of those facts to engage those with different viewpoints.”

Jennifer Lifshutz Lankin, a senior majoring in political science with a minor in English, has found the interplay of political theory and real-world politics in American Politics Seminar with Lieberman and Luders especially intriguing. “It’s exciting to learn about the intricacies of American politics from a senator who is so experienced in the field, in addition to my longtime professor,” she said. “I have taken several classes taught by Professor Luders, all of which have introduced me to different elements of political science, from political psychology to game theory, which have provided me with a holistic understanding of the discipline. I feel tremendously privileged to have learned from a true expert in the field, whose classes have not only impacted my decision to major in political science, but also proved insightful as I developed my own political beliefs.”

Beyond the classroom, students benefit from the mentorship and close connections to political leaders as they launch their own careers in the political arena: “I took Professor Ayalon’s course last year, and having that connection to him was helpful this past summer when I interned for a political consulting firm,” said Michelle Sabbagh, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in management who ultimately hopes to mesh her passion for political consulting with a position in the Jewish public sector. “We were hosting an event for Project Witness, a nonprofit Holocaust resource center, that celebrated a new documentary they released, and I was able to reach out to Professor Ayalon for a congratulatory statement.”

For Ayalon and Lieberman alike, however, these courses are more than just a chance to share what they’ve learned over a lifetime in politics with students; they’re opportunities to shape tomorrow’s political leaders in American and Israeli politics.

“The most important thing for me is the interaction with the students, because I find the students here very much engaged and involved and concerned and interested, which makes the experience in the class a great thing,” said Ayalon. “The Jewish people need effective advocates today more than ever, because with new communication technology and practices, the news cycles and the explosion of the Internet and social media have been used to delegitimize Israel and the Jewish nation. But today you don’t need a fancy office to be an ambassador for Israel—all you need is a keyboard, and I’ve already seen students taking the lead on the Internet.”

“I take every opportunity I can to encourage young people to consider a career in public service, some in elective politics, some in civil service,” said Lieberman. “Demographically, the Orthodox Jewish community in America is growing, and I think that means there will be an additional responsibility for Orthodox Jewish Americans to play a more active role in American leadership—both in their communities and as elected officials. I hope I can stimulate students to think about careers in government, and that my life story shows that it’s possible to have that career and lead a religious Jewish life in this country.”

Lieberman’s advice to students who are considering that balance? “I always say the first thing you should do is study politics and history to get a better sense of what life in public service would be like and what kind of leader you would like to be. Then you have to get involved. I’m planning a session on public service and Jewish life where I talk about the extent to which my Jewish upbringing influenced my decision to come into public life, what it was like to be the first Jewish American to be privileged to be on a national ticket in the 2000 elections, and how I tried to combine an Orthodox Jewish life with public service in America.”

According to Bevan, many students in the political science department already have an excellent head start on the path Lieberman recommends.

“We have a very active and dedicated student body,” she said. “They come with a certain sense of mission and see involvement in the political world as part of their responsibility to better life for all concerned, within but also above and beyond the Jewish community.”