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Conn. University Puts off Plan to Open Branch in Middle East

The University of New Haven has announced the postponement of a controversial branch campus that it had planned to open in the West Bank.

The change in plans is due to “heightened political tensions in the region during the past couple of weeks,” the university’s president, Lawrence DeNardis, said in a statement.

“The safety of our faculty and students in the Middle East must be a primary concern. A delay will afford us more time to assess this issue and explore all possible options,” he said.

Security may have been one of DeNardis’ concerns, but controversy — both local and international — has surrounded the proposed branch in the West Bank town of Elkana from its inception last fall.

Critics of the campus, located 12 miles east of Tel Aviv, included the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Peace Now, the New Jewish Agenda, the National Lawyers Guild, the Middle East Crisis Committee, the Middle East Network of United Methodists, members of the Israeli government and Bir Zeit University, a Palestinian campus in the West Bank that has been closed for nearly three of the last five years by the Israeli military.

Joseph Dimow, the secretary of the New Haven chapter of the progressive New Jewish Agenda, applauded the university’s decision to postpone the opening of the Elkana campus.

Dimow has vigorously opposed the university plan on the grounds that it would negatively affect the ongoing Middle East peace talks.

“Those negotiations are delicate enough without another irritation,” he said in a recent interview.

Dimow thinks the opposition has had “something to do with this decision” to postpone the opening.

Craig Sumberg of the liberal Americans for Peace Now agreed that the opposition in both countries was a “significant factor in the university’s decision” to postpone what he thought would be an “unnecessary disruption to the peace process.”

‘NO IMPACT’ ON PEACE TALKS

Jay Rubin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, disagreed.

The branch in Elkana, which was set to open in February, would have “no impact on the peace process whatsoever,” Rubin said.

Opposition on those grounds is “a fantasy on the part of Arab-American organizations that are looking for issues,” he added.

He called DeNardis a “well-intentioned, good friend of the Jewish community” who has the “best interests of his university and doing good for the peoples of the region at heart.”

Robert Fishman, executive director of the Connecticut Jewish Community Relations Council in West Hartford, added, “I can’t believe DeNardis would cave in to the opposition.”

In a December opinion piece in the New Haven Register, Sameer Hassan, president of the Connecticut chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, criticized the university plan.

A campus in Elkana would have “serious and far-reaching implications for the integrity of international law, the current Arab-Israeli peace talks, U.S. foreign policy and the future of the Palestinian people,” he wrote.

Such a venture, he said, was in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids the construction of settlements in occupied territory.

Israel’s Labor-led Education Ministry also voiced objection to the plan.

According to a report in the New Haven Register, Education Ministry spokesman Ron Melamed said his office is looking into the possibility of overturning the decision of the previous Likud government, which approved the Elkana campus.

DeNardis, who was a one-term Republican congressman, said the university was forced to locate its proposed Israeli campus in the administered territories “due to the refusal of Israeli regulatory authorities to grant approval for new institutions of higher education inside their country.”

When he announced the establishment of the school in November, DeNardis called the Elkana area one in which “demand for higher education far outstrips supply.”

The campus, therefore, would help meet that demand.

100 ISRAELIS ATTEND UNIVERSITY

DeNardis learned of this need from the many Israelis who attend the University of New Haven. About 100 are currently enrolled, mostly in engineering programs.

DeNardis emphasized that “the university’s branch in Elkana will be committed to equal access to educational and employment opportunities for all applicants — regardless of race, creed, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.”

He continued, “Our hope is that, by studying and learning together at our branch, the people of this region will be ultimately brought closer together in all ways.”

This hope, however, was criticized as “naive” by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Amiram Goldblum of Peace Now in Israel agreed with this criticism. He was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying, “The only Arabs able to get into the university will be those who come to clean.”

Goldblum is credited with raising the issue to national status in Israel, garnering the support of such figures as Education Minister Shulamit Aloni, the outspoken leader of the left-wing Meretz bloc.

Though DeNardis did not say when the branch might open, university spokeswoman Toni Blood said the plans were not being canceled.

“We are planning to do it. It’s just a matter of how and when,” Blood said.

In his statement, DeNardis said he intends to engage in further talks with Israeli officials and educational representatives, Arab institutions and Palestinian and other interested groups on the question of location “as well as other relevant issues.”

Richard Morrison, professor of physics at UNH, who was named rector of the new branch campus, has settled with his wife in Tel Aviv. According to Blood, UNH has no plans to bring him back.

“He’s still there and we expect him to remain there,” she said.

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