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Colleges Struggle to Balance Risks, Value of Study in Israel

December 18, 2000
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The recent Palestinian violence and the resulting U.S. State Department advisory against travel to Israel is causing many American universities to rethink their support for study in Israel.

That issue came to the fore this month as George Washington University first decided not to give credit to students studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then quickly reversed course under pressure.

Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania also considered denying credit for study at Israeli universities. Ultimately they dropped their plans following complaints from Jewish groups on campus.

The wrangling comes as the number of American students planning to study in Israel next semester is decreasing.

Officials at Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities both acknowledged that applications were significantly down for the spring semester, though neither would disclose details. Most students enrolled for the current semester chose to remain in Israel despite the current unrest, both schools said.

Israel is the most popular destination for American Jews studying abroad, and approximately 3,300 American students studied in Israel during the 1998-99 school year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Approximately 450 Americans are currently enrolled at Hebrew University, whose program for overseas students is the largest in Israel.

The policy at George Washington, a private university in Washington, was unusual in that it specifically denied credit from Hebrew University. This is because Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus is in eastern Jerusalem, an area singled out for special caution in the travel advisory, university officials said.

Beyond its geographical connotations, “east Jerusalem” generally refers to areas of the city that were under Jordanian control until the Six-Day War in 1967, and which the Palestinians seek to make the capital of their own state. The area has a large Arab population.

Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders argue that Mount Scopus has been an Israeli enclave since 1948, and is safe. Their discussions with George Washington University officials led the university to reverse its policy.

The school will continue to accept credits earned at Hebrew University. However, according to a statement released by its director of summer, special and international programs, the university now tells students that if they do not heed State Department warnings “they are acting entirely on their own, without the sanction of the University.”

“Our highest priority is always the safety and well-being of our students,” the statement said. “We can not ignore publicly available information that establishes norms for risk in travel. We make every effort to bring such information to the attention of our students and their families, and to ensure that they read and understand it.”

The debate at George Washington, Penn and Columbia reflects the schools’ fear of being held liable should their students be harmed while studying in Israel.

Some universities have resolved the matter by asking students and their parents to sign a waiver absolving the university of liability.

In addition, some are dropping official partnerships with Israeli universities, which means that students can still receive credit for course work, but they do so solely under the auspices of the Israeli university.

Menachem Milson, provost of Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students, said that since the violence began in late September “more than two or three” American universities have cut their official ties with his program.

The American students “stay at their personal responsibility and Hebrew University’s responsibility, as opposed to the American universities seeing themselves as liable,” Milson said in a telephone interview.

That approach satisfies Orli Gil, Israeli consul for academic affairs in New York, and Richard Joel, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Both say that studying in Israel is perfectly safe, despite the travel advisory.

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