Coalition Asks State Department to Downgrade Travel Warning to Israel

In a new campaign, a group called Caravan for Democracy is asking the U.S. State Department to reconsider its warning against travel to Israel. As a result of the warning to Americans planning trips to Israel, updated with more severe language in the spring of 2002, nearly all of the more than 100 U.S. colleges with study abroad programs in Israel suspended those programs or established barriers that deterred prospective students.

As a result, Jewish and Zionist identity experiences for many college students are at risk, Jewish officials have argued.

That rationale forms the basis for the latest campaign for reconsideration of the ban, which was launched with a March 2 news conference on Capitol Hill by Caravan for Democracy, a program of the Jewish National Fund, Media Watch International and Hamagshamim.

The coalition is asking people to sign an online petition asking U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reconsider the travel warning.

Students are also asked to present the signed petitions to campus administrations that have canceled their Israel study abroad programs, and to ask them to both resume and promote the programs.

The campaign comes as Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, raised the issue with Rice in a meeting today. Shalom told Rice that lifting the warning would spur Israel’s economy and help bring peace to the region. Shalom told JTA that Rice was “more positive” about the issue than in the past.

The campaign also comes after a similar campaign was launched in September. Called “Let Our Students Go!” it is run by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group of 26 Jewish organizations with campus programs.

Among its other activities, the coalition issued a declaration that encouraged its constituent groups to press universities on the issue.

In part, Caravan for Democracy’s project is “our way of contributing to the overall campaign” of the Israel on Campus Coalition, said Mara Suskauer, director of JNF’s College Activists Department.

Moreover, “the atmosphere is ripe for change,” she said.

To be sure, with a renewed peace effort under way, the climate in Israel has changed. And despite a recent suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub last week, the number of suicide bombings has slowed dramatically in the past two years.

While the U.S. State Department regularly issues travel warnings to Israel as it monitors the region, the warning in place since the spring of 2002 reflects the “the highest range of warning,” said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

“It’s always an issue of the severity of the language,” Firestone said. “From spring 2002 on, it’s always been in this extremely heightened area that makes everybody nervous that not following it, you’re in a risk area in terms of liability.” That’s why universities have canceled programs, he added.

In an interview with JTA, a State Department spokesman said he is unaware of any move to change its travel warning, which updates would-be travelers about the circumstances in Israel, noting, for example, suicide bombings and the instability created by the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

It does not mention peace initiatives under way.

“Travel warnings are very carefully prepared by our consular affairs bureau,” said State Department spokesman Steven Pike. “They are there for the benefit of American citizens to inform them of realistic and factual conditions in any country around the world and to give them information that they can use to judge the risks and to keep themselves safe.”

Pike noted, for example, the more tepid tenor of the warning to Israel in comparison to a country like Saudi Arabia. American citizens are “strongly urged to depart” that country.

In advising about travel to Israel, “the Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to depart Gaza immediately and to defer travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza due to current safety and security concerns.”

The number of American students in Israel has plummeted since the start of the intifada, mostly because of a fear of terrorism.

For the first three years of the intifada, about 1,000 American students studied in Israel each year, down from a peak in 1999, when some 4,000 American students went to Israel, according to Firestone. That does not include about 2,000 yeshiva students, whose numbers have remained relatively constant over the course of the intifada.

But in 2004 about 1,500 Americans studied in Israel, and the numbers continue to rise.

With more than 200 U.S. students this year, Tel Aviv University nearly doubled its enrollment from the previous year, which doubled enrollment from the year before.

“If the trend continues, then maybe two years from now we could look at numbers similar to the numbers that we saw before” the intifada, said Ami Dviri, U.S. director for Tel Aviv University’s overseas programs. “We’re not there yet but we’re definitely making huge progress,” he said, adding that American enrollment is up in all Israeli universities.

Additionally, since the start of the “Let Our Students Go!” campaign, between one to two dozen colleges have removed barriers to Israel study, primarily by allowing interested students to sign a waiver, freeing the university of liability, Firestone said.

Recently, the University of Wisconsin has reinstated its program.

Another effort under way is the 10-day mission of university study abroad officers to Israel that began March 1. Before the intifada, study abroad officers regularly traveled to Israel but this mission, arranged by the Israel University Consortium — comprised of Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — and co-sponsored by the ICC, is the first of its kind in five years.

One of the eight universities represented is the University of California at Berkeley, whose Israel program remains suspended.

“This is really the time when schools are a little more open,” said JoAnn Panzella, business manager of Hebrew University’s office of academic affairs in New York. Panzella surmised it was because of student pressure on universities. If the latest campaign helps to “tip the scales in our favor, then that’s great.”

For the students eager to spend time in Israel, that’s welcome news.

Take Carly Mangel, 19, a sophomore at Syracuse University.

She is now petitioning for credit for 10 classes when she takes a leave of absence from Syracuse University, which suspended its Israel program, to enroll in Tel Aviv University this fall.

Although she will take only five classes, she wants to make sure that she can choose which ones she wants once she gets to Israel. That means getting signatures from her adviser, dean and registrar for each class. Going to Israel to study now means not only taking a chance on how many credits she may earn, but risking her financial aid package as well.

But Mangel is counting on the strength of the university’s reputation, and she’s looking forward to the semester.

A trip on birthright israel, the free trip to Israel for Diaspora youth, introduced Mangel to a country with which she fell in love, a place where she has long hoped to spend an extended period of study.

“It’s a place where I really feel at home,” she said. “Thoughts of even making aliyah one day are definitely in the picture.”

Meanwhile, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also has pressed the administration on the travel warning.

In a joint letter sent recently to President Bush, the Presidents Conference and Jewish and Christian religious leaders urged that the warning be downgraded for the sake of increased study abroad and general tourism, which will in turn encourage the peace process.

The administration has shown “an awareness of the problem, but little action,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference. “Bureaucracy is slow to change.”

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