Fewer Americans choose to study in Israel

LOS ANGELES, July 24 (JTA) — With overseas study programs at Israeli universities set to begin, far fewer Americans are registering than in years past.

American college students who spend a year in Israel typically take a two-month Hebrew course from early August, before beginning the fall semester at universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa or Beersheba.

With Israeli-Palestinian violence now in its 10th month, however, the number of Americans enrolling at Israeli universities is less than half what it was last year, according to Orly Gil, Israeli consul for academic affairs in New York.

Gil didn’t have exact numbers, as many universities have been tight-lipped with their disappointing enrollment statistics.

Worried officials at California’s two main public university systems have imposed sharp restrictions on students’ movements in Israel, and on their use of public transportation.

Despite the warnings, participation from the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles and seven other locations appears to be close to near-normal levels.

Of the 70 students accepted for a year’s study in Israel, 55 are still going, said John A. Marcum, director of the Education Abroad Program.

The number is similar to those for the last five years, which ranged from 43 in 1996-97 to 73 the following academic year.

Overall, however, Israeli universities are preparing for a sharp decrease in the number of American students.

Hal Klopper, New York director of academic affairs for Tel Aviv University’s overseas student program, would say only that enrollment this coming semester is “down.”

He declined to elaborate, saying extensive media coverage of the issue is “counterproductive” to recruiting students and “creates anxiety and fear in the Jewish community.”

Gil said the main reason for low enrollment is that students, concerned about the escalation of violence and terrorism in the past year, “just don’t apply” to the programs.

“Israel used to be one of the major countries to which American students traveled, and it’s now in a much lower position,” she said.

In 1998-99, the last year for which data is available, approximately 3,300 American students studied in Israel, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The University of California’s Marcum, who says he feels a strong sense of responsibility for the students’ security and welfare, has warned them of the risks and advised them against using public transportation.

“I have conveyed one strong stricture to all students — that if they cross over into the West Bank or Gaza, they will be subject to dismissal from the program,” he said.

Of the 55 California students, 29 are registered for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 22 for Tel Aviv University, three for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and one for the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies.

Hebrew University, which has traditionally had the largest number of overseas students, expects 150 American students to begin the program next month, said Amy Sugin, director of academic affairs at the university’s New York office.

Last year, 250 people were enrolled, and most stayed through the semester or year as planned. However, applications dropped significantly in the spring.

“No matter who comes, it will be an academically viable program and a critical number of courses will be taught,” Sugin said. “The students will have the academic program that their predecessors had, and the social program as well.”

Jewish officials and educators applaud the University of California for continuing its programs in Israel without interruption. But their deepest praise is for the plan established by the California State University system after it initially canceled its Israel study program.

Last October, Cal State came under considerable criticism when it abruptly notified 11 students already enrolled at Hebrew University that the program had been terminated, and urged them to come home immediately.

The sudden decision left the students, who had completed a Hebrew language ulpan course, without promised financial support. Also thrown into question was whether credits earned at Hebrew University would be accepted at their home campuses.

Despite this pressure, only one student opted to return last fall.

Following months of intensive discussions with its own faculty council and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, Cal State officials have now given the green light to a study program at Haifa University, believed to be safer from terrorist attacks than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Cal State programs at the Hebrew and Tel Aviv universities are in abeyance for the time being, despite a lobbying effort by a Hebrew University official who traveled to Cal State’s headquarters in Long Beach to make his case.

A key provision in establishing the Cal State-Haifa agreement is the appointment of a resident regional director to act as the eyes and ears of the Cal State administration in Israel.

It was the absence of such a director, with full authority to represent the Cal State chancellor, that some critics blame for the precipitous cancellation of the program last fall.

The newly appointed director is Norma Tarrow, an experienced hand at overseas crises. She was in charge of Cal State students at the Hebrew University in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War broke out.

“At the time, I was told” by the Cal State administration “to take the 14 students and wait out the war in Cyprus,” Tarrow recalled. She and the students decided to ignore the order, and stayed in Jerusalem throughout the war.

Tarrow considers her present assignment even more sensitive than the one in 1973.

“At the time, we were concerned about air raids, but we didn’t have infiltration into the heart of Israel,” she said.

She will meet with her students before leaving for Israel in early August, and will require them to sign agreements not to travel to the West Bank and Gaza.

Each student will be given a cell phone, and Tarrow will have a car to transport them so they can avoid public buses.

The downside is that while 12 students originally applied to study at Haifa, only four decided to go following the June 1 suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, which killed 21 Israelis. All four of the students are from northern California and most are not Jewish.

Leo van Cleve, Cal State’s director of international programs, said he “couldn’t justify continuing the program year after year” with such low numbers, but hoped participation would increase once the situation in Israel improved.

Whatever the future may hold, Jewish officials and faculty who have been negotiating with Cal State officials over the past months praise the university’s willingness to listen and respond to criticism.

“I have been delighted with their attitude,” said Barbara Yaroslavsky, chair of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee. “It would be wonderful if the programs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were reinstated.”

Professor Sam Edelman of Cal State at Chico, a leading faculty advocate for the Israel programs, credited Jewish community support for “forging an understanding with the administration that will be useful in the future.”

(JTA Staff Writer Julie Wiener in New York contributed to this report.)

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