From the Gaza Border to Oxford: Israel’s New Rhodes Scholars Love Their Country but 'Reject Hasbara Approach'

Lev Cosijns and Anat Peled both served in the Israeli army and have a shared love of Harry Potter. But that’s where the similarities end for this pair of impressive young students

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Israel's 2020 Rhodes scholars Anat Peled, left, and Lev Cosijns.
Israel's 2020 Rhodes scholars Anat Peled, left, and Lev Cosijns.Credit: Doron Weber

It may be one of the most prestigious academic honors in the world, but the process of becoming a Rhodes scholar sounds an awful lot like being a reality TV contestant.

“They line everybody up and announce the winners — who gets the scholarship and who stays home. It’s like ‘Masterchef,’” says Bar-Ilan University archaeology student Lev Cosijns. She and Anat Peled, a history major at Stanford University, are still joyfully reeling from the news that they are the two Israelis chosen for graduate study at the University of Oxford next year.

The dramatic announcement came after the pair advanced to the final selection round, where the seven Israeli finalists were invited for two days of intensive scrutiny.

Rhodes scholarships are a long-standing tradition in the United States, where an elite international group of future leaders — chosen for “outstanding scholarly achievements, character, commitment to others and to the common good” — have participated in the program since 1902. They are a new phenomenon in Israel, though, following a 2017 decision to include it in the list of countries invited into the program. That year, the number of scholarships was raised from 83 to 95 as part of the global geographic expansion.

This is the first year in which both Israeli recipients have been women (a man and woman were selected in 2017 and 2018). “Girl power,” jokes Cosijns, a young woman with long hair and a quick smile.

Cosijns, 26, and Peled, 25, say they bonded over their mutual enthusiasm of “Harry Potter” during the process when the finalists met — and embraced when they learned that they were the winners of the scholarship to spend two years pursuing a master’s degree at Oxford.

Despite their shared affection for Hogwarts, Cosijns and Peled come from very different backgrounds. Until leaving for Stanford, Peled lived her entire life in Ra’anana, the daughter of Israeli academics who met at Harvard. She served in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit as an Arabic analyst, which is where she discovered her passion for Middle East studies.

'It's complicated'

When anyone asks Cosijns where she’s from, her standard answer is “It’s complicated.” She’s the daughter of a Belgian-Japanese father — her grandfather was a Belgian missionary who married a Japanese woman — and an Israeli mother from Rehovot. Cosijns’ parents met and married while studying in Japan, where she spent her first three years. The family relocated to Great Britain for 12 years, for her father’s job at Sony. Just as she was entering high school, he was reassigned again — this time to Budapest, where she graduated from a British international school.

Lev Cosijns.Credit: Courtesy

All the while, she attended Jewish school on Sundays while learning Christian Anglican theology in school during the week. “My parents agreed we’d be raised Jewish. But my granddad is Christian, and my mom encouraged me to go to church with him because it would make him really happy,” explains Cosijns, who speaks Hebrew, English, Japanese and French.

Her connection to Israel, where she visited her mother’s family every summer, was always strong. And so, “confused” after graduating high school and knowing that she “loved Israel and wanted to do something meaningful,” she decided to enlist in the Israeli army as a “lone soldier” in the Garin Tzabar program. She was based on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, and says “it was the best idea ever.”

Since she was considering medical school, she chose to serve as a medic and ended up as an officer training combat medical units. She served for four and a half years, receiving the General Chief of Staff Citation for Military Distinction for her work training medical units on the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

“My job was to make sure the doctors knew what they were doing, and making sure everything was perfectly ready when they went in — and then supporting the units that evacuated the wounded from the border to the hospitals,” she recounts.

After the army, she made another unconventional choice: She traveled to China for eight months to study kung fu. “It was something I always wanted to do, but I think the army gave me the confidence to do it,” she explains.

And it was during her army service that she realized her true passion was not medicine but history and archaeological science. Who inspired this shift? “Indiana Jones!” she laughs. “And in China I even learned how to use a whip so I could be a proper archaeologist.”

Joking aside, she says she was fascinated by Israel’s biblical topography and realized it was the perfect field for someone who was both bookish and “loved being outside.”

Her scientific interest is still alive. She works in a physical anthropology lab and is fascinated by what DNA technology is able to teach about the past. Her “dream project” would be to run the DNA on 13th-century Crusader remains found in a cemetery at Atlit, near Haifa, in order to learn “exactly who the men buried there were and where they came from.”

Expanding empathy

Peled, meanwhile, left Israel to get her bachelor’s degree at Stanford because she wanted a liberal arts education and wasn’t ready to focus on one or two disciplines, Israeli-style. She calls her California college “intellectual Candy Land” and the perfect place to pursue her multiple interests — Arabic, political science and security affairs. She is also learning Russian.

Anat Peled.Credit: Courtesy

Her time in the Israeli army’s intelligence unit helped her learn that she “loved international affairs, language. It taught me the ability to use language as a tool.” And though it may sound counterintuitive, she found that her experiences there helped her expand her empathy toward others. She immersed herself in Arabic language and culture, watching Egyptian films and listening to Arabic music.

“One of the coolest thing about coming to Stanford is that I now have friends from all over the Arab and Muslim world,” Peled says. “Studying Arabic has meant that I’ve gotten to meet people from Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia — and we have built real friendships.”

While she doesn’t “flaunt” her army service with her friends, she doesn’t keep it a secret either. “It’s just something we do as Israelis, and I’m proud of what I did,” she says. She also worked for a time at Budo for Peace, an Israeli nonprofit that uses martial arts to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together.

The “campus wars” over Israel have been relatively quiet during her years at Stanford (she arrived after a more heated period). Even so, it took some time for Peled to find her place in U.S. campus activism — initially finding the way the “debate is framed” there to be “tiring.” As a result, she spent her first few years focusing on her intellectual interests.

Although Peled clearly loves Israel (“It’s where my family is from; it’s where I see my future”), she rejects “the whole hasbara [public diplomacy] approach — the message that you need to present Israel as a Coke commercial, sell it as some kind of a product. I’m not into that. It’s not honest, and I think people are smarter than that.”

It has only been in the past year that she finally found her “place” and “voice” when it comes to Israel, she says. She has begun writing Op-Eds on Israeli politics, including a piece in Haaretz ahead of the last election in September. She has also been organizing events at Stanford’s Hillel chapter to discuss the recent “political craziness” in her homeland. “I think there’s a lot of hunger right now to understand what’s happening in Israel and how it ties into the rest of the world, especially America,” she explains.

When she discusses Israel on campus, she focuses the conversation on her own life there, her study of Arabic, and “the struggles we are going through right now. It feels more honest to people. Just the very fact that you are lovingly critical of your country can serve as your own form of hasbara.”

Graduates gathering outside the Sheldonian Theatre after a graduation ceremony at the University of Oxford, England, July 2017.Credit: Hannah Mckay / REUTERS

With the Rhodes scholarship, she will next be taking that challenge to an English campus.

“I started Stanford in September 2016. My four years here have been the Trump years,” she says. “I remember when Trump won, and watching his presidency from California has been fascinating. I’m looking forward to triangulating my political experiences: I know Israel; I’ve been in the U.S.; and now I’ll be in the center of the action in England. I’m really fascinated to watch what will happen with Brexit,” she says, referring to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, adding, “I think it will have profound implications for Israel.”