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After Violence in Northern Israel, Students Reconsider Study Abroad

August 23, 2006
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When the first rocket hit Haifa, David was sitting at his desk studying. Four days later, the medical student in the American program at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology was back home in Baltimore. The university canceled final exams after the Israel-Hezbollah war erupted in mid-July — and David, who asked that his real name not be used, saw no point in sticking around.

Now that a fragile cease-fire has taken hold in the region, the Technion, located in Israel’s third-largest city, has resumed normal operations.

But David isn’t sure if he’ll return to campus in October, the start of the fall semester.

“If the situation stays peaceful, I may go back,” he says. “If it’s not, I have no idea.”

American students have had to make tough choices this summer about whether to study abroad in Israel. With tensions in the Middle East running high, they worry about their safety — and so do their universities.

Some U.S. colleges have suspended study-abroad programs in northern Israel and have asked students not to attend universities in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, even though those cities didn’t come under Hezbollah rocket fire.

Other colleges haven’t sent students to Israel since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. Those institutions base their decisions on State Department travel warnings; the one for Israel has been in effect since December 2001.

Universities cannot forbid students from studying in Israel, but they can refuse to give students credit for study abroad there. Most U.S. universities require that students who want to study in Israel take a leave of absence to do so.

Leaders of American Jewish organizations say universities shouldn’t suspend their study-abroad programs in Israel in light of the recent fighting. They note the inherent risks of studying abroad in any country, and don’t want college officials to overreact.

“We sympathize with schools trying to walk this line between what they saw on TV screens from July and August and student delegations heading to Israel,” says David Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group of national organizations that promote Israel advocacy on campus. “The fact is, Israel is a safe place to study.”

But study-abroad officials say some parts of the country are safer than others, at least for now.

This is “the first time rockets have fallen in Haifa and people have had to spend considerable amounts of time in bomb shelters,” says Joe Finkhouse, director of institutional relations in Boston University’s division of international programs. “That changes everything considerably.”

For roughly a dozen years, the university has run a study-abroad program at the University of Haifa. B.U. officials have never canceled the program, Finkhouse says, nor did they cancel it this semester — but the four students who had enrolled dropped out three weeks ago because of security concerns.

“We’re looking forward to re-enrolling students spring semester,” he says.

One University of Pennsylvania student was slated to study at the University of Haifa this semester, says Shannon Connelly, an overseas program manager at Penn. But the student is currently studying at Tel Aviv University, based on Penn’s decision.

Some colleges, like New York University and the University of California system, have said “no” for years. Both schools do not send students to countries with travel warnings.

“The State Department has thousands of people who have been trained to evaluate the safety of these places to Americans,” says Bruce Hanna, director of communications for the University of California system’s Education Abroad Program. “For us to come up with our own staff to duplicate that effort would be extremely costly.”

Emory University in Atlanta also had stopped sending students to Israel since spring 2001 because of the intifada. But last semester, university officials decided to reinstate the program this fall.

“The security situation had been stable for long enough that we felt comfortable we could send students back and they would be safe,” says Philip Wainwright, director of Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad. “The level of State Department warning reflected that. It had said U.S. citizens should defer travel to Israel,” but the warning was revised and no longer says that.

Wainwright says five students had registered to attend Hebrew University in Jerusalem this fall, but two dropped out because of safety concerns.

Given Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah, Emory officials had their own concerns, but rather than cancel the program they decided to consult with students.

Wainwright says university officials asked them to abide by the safety and security regulations outlined in the State Department travel warning, which the students agreed to do. Emory officials also gave students taxi stipends so they wouldn’t have to take public buses, a common target for suicide bombers.

John Fisher, director of enrollment management at Yeshiva University, says there has been no change in the number of students the New York-based school sends to Israel.

“We’re looking forward to a strong and robust year,” he says of the program.

Yeshiva, which serves a mainly Orthodox Jewish population, has about 600 students going to Israel this year, the same number it sends every year.

Brandeis University has never told students they couldn’t study abroad, even in countries with travel warnings, such as Israel, Kenya and Nepal, says Scott Van Der Meid, the university’s director of study abroad.

“We have a peace-and-conflict studies major,” he says. How can the university say, ” ‘We’re not going to send you into areas we consider unsafe?’ “

This fall, Brandeis will send two students to the University of Haifa, two to Tel Aviv University, one to Hebrew University and one to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Another student, Van Der Meid says, had planned to study at Hebrew University but decided to stay at Brandeis this semester because of safety concerns. That student will reconsider studying in Israel for the spring semester, he says.

Despite the risks, Rebecca Gottlieb and her parents decided she would go. A student at Brandeis, where she is an international and global studies major, Gottlieb will spend her junior year at Hebrew University. She leaves for Israel in October when the semester begins.

“My parents are definitely concerned about the security,” says the Teaneck, N.J., resident. “They understand this means a lot to me.”

Gottlieb recently returned from a two-month summer fellowship in Jerusalem where, except for bomb scares, “you didn’t really feel the war,” she says.

But for David, the fighting was a little too close for comfort. He remembers the swoosh of a Hezbollah rocket as it flew over his apartment, then a huge explosion as it landed less than a mile away.

He also recalls the sadness he experienced at leaving the country in turmoil.

“I felt very bad for people in Israel,” he says, and “very guilty that I got to go home.”

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