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Advocates for Israel Taking on Bans on University Study in Israel

September 15, 2004
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Ever since Ari Kaiman traveled to Israel on a United Synagogue Youth teen tour four years ago, he has wanted to go back. "The moment a Jewish person steps foot in the Land of Israel, breathes the air, he feels at home," the University of Florida senior said.

For Kaiman, the trip made him want to spend part of his college time in Israel. But it wasn’t easy.

Citing the U.S. State Department travel advisory to Israel, the University of Florida — like the vast majority of other colleges across the country — suspended its programs in Israel. While most universities will approve transfer credits, in Florida’s case going around the university meant risking credits for course work abroad.

"I thought there was a very real possibility I would sort of lose out on a whole semester," Kaiman said, a prospect he called "very scary."

Ultimately, Kaiman not only spent last spring at the University of Haifa but gained full credit for! that semester and an ulpan, due to what he says was a combination of luck and persistence.

He also acquired "an intimate knowledge and love" of Israel and helped pave the way for others at his university to study in Israel, Kaiman said.

Trying to overcome the academic hurdles to study in Israel is the latest element of American Jewish organizations’ pro-Israel advocacy work on campus amid the Palestinian intifada.

That’s because restrictions on Israel study deal a blow to the Jewish and Zionist identity that a trip to Israel can fuel.

"We’re really losing one of our greatest assets on campus, which is students who have a really in-depth knowledge of and connection to first-hand experience in Israel," said Lisa Eisen, chair of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a coordinating body of 26 Jewish groups that have a presence on campus.

Jewish students who have spent time in Israel "are our best advocates," she said.

The ICC last week launched "Let Our Students! Go!" a national campaign to call attention to the issue.

ICC memb er groups are urged to work with university administrators, alumni and community leaders to remove barriers for those who want to study in Israel. For example, the campaign suggests establishing scholarship funds for study abroad and bringing university administrators and the risk managers they consult on Israel missions to show them first-hand student life in Israel.

"The point of all these things is to demonstrate that the Jewish community views the opportunity for study abroad in Israel as a priority and an asset both to the campus and the community," said Wayne Firestone, director of the ICC and Hillel’s Center for Israel Affairs.

Considering the fact that Israelis produce more academic papers per capita than any other country, "to exclude first-hand personal experiences learning of the history of Western civilization where it actually occurred is criminal," he said.

The top leaders of many ICC member organizations turned up in New York on Sept. 9 at Columbia U! niversity’s Hillel to launch the campaign.

"If the kids are willing to put their own academic careers on the line," then "the least we can do is give them the backing," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is an ICC member.

The campaign comes as the Jewish Agency for Israel, an ICC member, spearheads a major effort to provide more funding to Israel study programs.

By granting subsidies to students on the basis of need, the Jewish Agency, in partnership with the Israeli government, aims to halve the cost of Israel study programs to encourage young Jews to study in Israel.

The Israeli government is slated to give $10 million this year to groups around the world that bring 18- to 26-year-old Jews to Israel on educational programs of at least five months.

Every year, the Israeli government will increase its contribution by $10 million, with a matching grant from sources as! sembled by the Jewish Agency.

"We consider long-term study program s one of the best ways to incentivize Jews to live in Israel," said Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency’s North American aliyah delegation.

The violence of the Palestinian intifada has turned many students, and their parents, against study in Israel. But university policies that discourage study in Israel also have had a substantial effect.

"A student who is particularly focused on studying in Israel can generally still do so, but those who are choosing from a variety of options will be more likely to choose an easier path," said Amy Sugin, director of the office of academic affairs for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School.

At the same time, Sugin notes that the decline in enrollment since the intifada began has begun to reverse.

For example, 381 American students enrolled in Hebrew University this summer and fall. That’s 35 percent below pre-intifada levels, but a 36 percent increase from last year and a 100 p! ercent jump from the year before.

The upswing is due to the fact that terrorist incidents have decreased, Sugin said, but also because several rounds of students that have studied in Israel during the intifada have returned to their home campuses having had positive experiences.

The increased demand to study in Israel is prompting administrations to revisit their policies, Sugin says, making this a "pivotal time" in student activism on the issue.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania shifted its policy 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 2003 fall semester.

The university moved from a position of suspending its Israel study programs to allowing students to study in Israel if they file a petition to study abroad and then sign a waiver accepting responsibility for their own safety, according to The ! Daily Pennsylvanian campus newspaper.

The issue comes down to stude nt safety, said Geoffrey Gee, UPenn’s director of study abroad.

"If the State Department or other government agencies say that its not safe to be in a place," then "we would not be in any position to contradict that," he said.

For universities that have put in place obstacles to Israel study, it mainly comes down to liability and the perception of insecurity in Israel, the ICC’s Eisen said.

"We do not believe, for the most part, that this is anti-Israel animus," she said.

While no one would deny that there has been terrorism in Israel, Eisen said, "I think students who actively want to go to Israel and who go with their eyes open should be enabled that opportunity."

For Gregory Shill, preventing students from studying in Israel is "tragic."

As a Columbia university student, he had to fight hard to spend spring 2001 at Tel Aviv University.

He successfully lobbied the student council to pass a resolution calling on the university to allow students to go to! Israel. He also helped round up signatures for a petition on the issue to pressure the university, which ultimately allowed them to go after signing a waiver of liability.

For Shill, spending a semester in Israel during the intifada will inform his personal and professional choices. He hopes to make a career in politics — "to help Israel achieve peace," he said.

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