Despite Violence and Bureaucracy, Students Return to Israel Programs
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Despite Violence and Bureaucracy, Students Return to Israel Programs

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When the University of Pennsylvania changed its Israel travel-abroad policy, it was a bittersweet victory for David Rendsburg.

The Penn senior might have spent his junior year in Israel were it not for the university administration, which until last month wouldn’t guarantee that it would give credit for study in Israel because of a U.S. State Department advisory against travel to the Jewish state.

But starting next fall, students will be able to study in Israel by filing a petition that includes a statement of support from an academic adviser and a waiver, signed by both the student and his or her guardian, releasing the university from responsibility for the student’s safety.

The shift came after students affiliated with Pennpac, a pro-Israel campus group, launched a letter-writing campaign urging a policy review and bombarded the provost with 400 letters in the last two weeks of the fall semester.

“I wish it came two years ago, when I still could have qualified for study abroad,” said Rendsburg, who created a Web site for the campaign.

More than three years into the Palestinian intifada, American undergraduates have adjusted to violence in Israel and the ongoing conflict in Iraq, officials at Israeli universities say. In some cases, the unrest even has piqued students’ interest in the region.

Taken together, these factors have caused U.S. enrollment in Israeli universities to climb.

But the numbers are only about half of what they were before the intifada, said Amy Sugin, director of the American Friends of Hebrew University’s office of academic affairs.

Many universities restricted study in Israel when the State Department issued a travel advisory after the intifada was launched in September 2000.

For example, Penn, which once was among the most prolific providers to Hebrew University — sending about 20 students a year — sent none the past two years, Sugin said.

Academic policies remain a serious stumbling block for American students hoping to receive academic credit for study in Israel and the Israeli universities hoping to attract them.

Some activists are aiming to change that.

Ross Neihaus, president of UCLA’s Bruins for Israel, said some students are planning a campaign to protest the University of California’s cancellation of its Israel programs.

The state university system, which sent 64 students to Israel as recently as 1999, asked students on the program to leave Israel during the 2001-02 academic year, and none have gone through the system since then.

A U.C. spokesman said the step was taken because of fear for the students’ safety. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA’s Hillel, plans to take up the issue with administrators.

In October, the heads of three major Jewish academic groups issued a statement to their members and the media.

“We wish to express our alarm at the policies of North American universities that seek to dissuade, discourage, prevent or even prohibit students who decide to study in Israel from doing so,” said the statement from the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, the Association for Jewish Studies and the American Academy for Jewish Research.

The groups argued that decreased study in Israel was harming Jewish studies programs in North America and called on universities to “review their policies on study in Israel in order to remove obstacles created by administrative decisions.”

Lawrence Schiffman, a former president of the Association for Jewish Studies and a co-author of the statement, said it was difficult to gauge the statement’s impact, but he said he hopes activists will use it as a tool for protesting university policy.

Policies on Israel study differ from university to university, with some schools providing full sponsorship or limited recognition, such as a waiver to attend a non-approved program or credits that don’t count toward a student’s grade- point average.

Other universities have dropped partnerships with Israeli universities that provided financial aid and credit transfers, giving students no guarantees that credits will be accepted.

Still, Israeli universities are reporting an upswing in North American undergraduate enrollment and new enthusiasm by students eager to study in Israel.

Tel Aviv University has seen an increase in enrollment to about 100 Americans this year, up from roughly 75 last year and 50 the year before, said Ami Dviri, director of the university’s office of academic affairs.

Yeshiva University boasts record numbers for its program, in which students typically spend their first year of college in an affiliated yeshiva program in Israel.

“We have the biggest group we’ve had in the history of the program,” said John Fisher, director of Y.U.’s enrollment management. The university now has 675 students in Israel, up from 580 the previous year.

Students’ eagerness to be in Israel simply “won out this year” over parental concern, he said.

At a recent orientation in New York for American undergraduates heading to Hebrew University, students buzzed with excitement about taking a semester abroad.

Their questions almost made it seem as if the students were headed to summer camp, not a violence-stricken country. Students and parents asked if dorm rooms had refrigerators, how many rolls of film to pack and whether they should bring items like water filters.

Ira Glasser, 20, a junior at SUNY Binghamton, said his parents were worried about security, but study abroad “is something that I really pushed for.”

At Hebrew University, enrollment has increased nearly 30 percent, to about 150 American undergraduates this year. But policies at U.S. universities still are having a “significant” impact, Sugin said.

Enrollment in a Hebrew U. pre-university program has dipped only by about 18 percent since the intifada began, while the semester-abroad program, where students enroll through their universities, has dropped by nearly half, Sugin said.

Like Rendsburg, many students blame university policies for thwarting their Israel study plans.

Sarah Bier, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was prohibited from studying in Israel — despite the fact that her international relations degree required her to study in the country where her second language is spoken.

Bier said she was advised to drop out of school and reapply — without assurances that she could graduate on time. Instead, she opted not to study in Israel and changed her major.

Bier said administrative headaches mean that fewer Jewish undergraduates study in Israel, but those who do go are more passionate.

“You get the cream of the crop who are either Jewishly connected or advocates of Israel programming on campus,” she said.

Some students say the process still isn’t so difficult.

The University of Maryland has postponed its study program in Israel, but students simply enroll on their own and credits are “pretty easily transferrable,” said sophomore Aaron Wolf, 19, who plans to study in Israel next year.

But students can run into other issues when university partnerships are severed.

“Most — if not all — of our program returnees have been able to successfully transfer their TAU credits to their home school,” said Tel Aviv University’s Dviri. “The problem is usually either with students who are deterred by their school’s policy threat or with students who heavily rely on financial aid and are unable to transfer it to TAU due to their school’s policy on study abroad in Israel.”

Dviri noted several efforts under way, by both students and administrators, to ease university policies on Israel study.

But, he said, “I don’t think anything significant” will happen until the State Department retracts or downgrades its travel advisory.

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