After years of planning and delays, New York University is set to open a study-abroad site in Tel Aviv starting this fall, over the objections of some faculty members who oppose the program.
Postponed several times because of security concerns, the program will focus on politics, journalism, diplomacy and culture. NYU is also lining up internships for nearly 20 students set to arrive September 1.
School officials said the program is rooted in the hope that participating students will better understand the complexity of the political situation in the Middle East after spending a semester there.
"Everybody is aware that what happens in Israel and the Middle East is crucially important for the rest of the world," said Ulrich Baer, the vice provost for globalization and multi-cultural affairs at NYU. "The faculty were convinced that for the students to learn in that environment, not just about it, would be a great advantage."
Still, the program generated some resistance on its Greenwich Village-based campus.
"There was a very vigorous academic debate about whether one should have a program in Israel at this point," said Baer. "Some people think this is not the moment to open a program in Israel."
In recent years, NYU has witnessed clashes among students over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last winter, a pro-Gaza group of students staged a protest called Take Back NYU, barricading themselves in a student center and threatening to stay there until the university met their demands, including giving scholarships to 13 Gazan students and donating surplus supplies to a school in Gaza.
The students were suspended following the protest.
But the campus also has a strong Jewish and pro-Israel presence, and in June 2007 the university's president, John Sexton, opposed a boycott of Israeli academics.
Still, this past March, during an Israel Apartheid Week at NYU, a group of students organized a panel discussion entitled, "NYU-Tel Aviv University: A Partnership in Occupation."
Andrew Ross, an NYU professor who chairs the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an advocacy group for academic freedom, was among the speakers who raised concerns about NYU's Tel Aviv program.
"I agreed to speak because I was interested in how little we'd heard about this program at NYU," said Ross.
Referencing NYU's sister campus in Abu Dhabi, Ross said the university went out of its way to assure foreign nationals from any country, including Israel, would be allowed into Abu Dhabi. But he said the university was not likely to obtain similar assurances from the Israeli authorities.
"We have a number of Palestinian students at NYU," he said. If they wanted to enroll in the study abroad program, he added, "They might not be able to."
Ross also said he was bothered by the degree to which the IDF had established a presence at Tel Aviv University, where the NYU students will have some classes.
"The degree to which faculty at the university were engaged in military research for the IDF, and therefore were directly involved in supporting and maintaining the occupation of the Palestinian territories - that gave me a lot of concern," he said.
Further, he said, would NYU students studying at Tel Aviv University displace Palestinian students at the university, for lack of space?
Broadly speaking, Ross said, he was concerned that more Israeli academics did not support a petition last year to protect academic freedom at Palestinian universities.
"The petition was sent to over 9,000 Israeli academics, including 5,000 tenured faculty, and it was signed by only 407," Ross said. "This seems a very telling outcome to me."
But Annie Peck, a Jewish NYU student who attended the panel as a supporter of Israel, said the discussion struck her as inconsistent and ironic.
"It was a very contradictory thesis," said Peck, who pointed out that panelists accusing Israel of stifling free speech and choice were doing so themselves by trying to quash the NYU program for students who hoped to attend.
Peck, a junior studying politics and Jewish history, will be attending the Tel Aviv program this fall. After going on a birthright Israel tour last year, she called the program a "perfect fit" for someone like her, who hopes to someday work in diplomacy.
"Studying Israeli politics in Israel will be the best way to learn," said Peck, who hopes to do an internship while she is in Israel.
According to Baer, the inaugural group reflects diverse religious backgrounds. About a third of students expressed a desire to study Arabic.
"We very much wanted to create a program that is open to anyone, and not to one set of students," said Baer.
While many Jewish American students have other opportunities to go to Israel on programs such as birthright, he said, "for some other students, it might be a less likely destination."
During the semester, students will be offered general courses in education, history, journalism, political science, diplomacy and culture. NYU has hired local faculty, including the filmmaker Etan Fox.
NYU is also eyeing opening its own academic center in Tel Aviv, but in the meantime, students will be housed in a hostel near Tel Aviv University.
They'll meet with local student groups and will have the opportunity to intern at art museums and media outlets. NYU has taken pains to offer courses that are balanced and portray a wide range of political and cultural perspectives.
He said while he takes those positions "very seriously," the university does not determine foreign policy.
"The students should learn how to make their own decisions," said Baer. "For that, they have to go there.
"To shut the conversation down," he said, "is not an academic possibility."