Universities cancel study abroad in Israel in wake of Gaza op

Rutgers, Duke, U. Penn among schools which cited security reasons for abrupt cancellation.

Hebrew university 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hebrew university 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Natalie Leichtman was all but packed for a spring semester abroad in Israel, when she opened up her e-mail and saw that the program had been canceled. "I had been working through all the paperwork for most of the semester" the 21-year-old Rutgers psychology student told The Jerusalem Post from Jerusalem on Sunday. "And then I got an e-mail at about 6 p.m. on the Thursday night before the flight, which was scheduled for the following Tuesday. It said that [the university] had received letters from the State Department alerting them to the situation in Israel, and that there had been two rockets fired from Lebanon, which is what made them decide to finally cancel the program. I listened to news reports and heard that Lebanon had nothing to do with it." But Leichtman's school was not alone. Citing security concerns during the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, Rutgers joined ranks with Duke and Pennsylvania universities earlier this month in canceling their study abroad programs in Israel. Students were sent letters and e-mails notifying them of the change, but given time constraints associated with the spring semester, many of them were left with little choice - either abandon their plans to come to Israel, or go it alone, without the support of their schools. "They didn't cancel [the study abroad program] because of the second intifada or the Second Lebanon War, so why now?" Leichtman asked. The only answer thus far from Rutgers was given in the official cancellation letter. "The instability in the Gaza area, now compounded by the missiles coming into northern Israel from Lebanon, indicate that the safety of our students cannot be reasonably assured," wrote Dr. Barry Qualls, the university's vice president of undergraduate education. "We have thus decided to close our programs in Israel for Spring 2009." Duke University offered less of an explanation, simply announcing on its Web site that the Duke in Israel Study Abroad Program for 2009 had been canceled. It followed up the announcement with, "Stay tuned for reopening of program in Summer 2010!" Nonetheless, many Rutgers students remained unfazed. "My first reaction was that this was even more of a reason as to why I should go," Leichtman said. "To show my support. I was angry and frustrated with Rutgers. That Monday I had just received my dorm and had just picked up my student visa. I had my ticket booked. Everything had just fallen into place and basically the entire thing went up in smoke." The worst thing, Leichtman explained, was that given her decision to come to Israel despite the change, she faced the prospect of losing her tuition. "Because it's a study abroad program, all my scholarship and tuition were paid to Rutgers and the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University. When I got here, I had no longer paid any of my tuition. I was in the honors program at Rutgers and I have $4,000 in scholarships there," she said. "And I may lose all of it. I might not get my [academic] standing back, and my credits may not transfer anymore." Daunted but not swayed, Leichtman decided to forge ahead. "I had to spend Monday running around to different administration buildings, withdrawing from colleges, applying to colleges, and then I ended up having to stay up all night packing. They canceled on such short notice that all the deadlines for class registration had passed. I had to scramble around trying to get into courses that were already closed." "With regard to Rutgers, I know that there were students that had to apply directly [to Rothberg]," said Yoni Kaplan, director of Rothberg's division of undergraduate studies. "Most, if not all, ended up coming anyway. I believe it was the decision from the [university's] risk assessment committee that it was unsafe to come to Israel at this time. I think that it was the wrong decision. Israel, and specifically Jerusalem, continues to be safe for students from abroad. The State Department's advisories did not prohibit students from coming. There really was no reason for alarm. We look forward, in the future, to a close and productive relationship with Rutgers." Andrew Getraer, executive director of the Rutgers Hillel, said the school may have come to a different decision if it had "a more in-depth understanding" of the region. He also worried that because Rutgers has one of the largest Jewish populations of any university in the country, the move could set a precedent. Rutgers was "if not the first, one of the first universities in the country to suspend the program this spring, and it sets an example that we fear other universities will follow," Getraer said. If "the world disengages from Israel based on fear, it's a loss for Israel and it's a loss for us as well." The Council for Higher Education in Israel also chimed in on the universities' decisions. "The security problems in the South have, as far as we can see, been taken care of," said Yuval Lidor, the council's spokesman. "Students have nothing to be afraid of, and frankly, it seems strange that the universities would choose to cancel their programs at this time. Regardless, the Council for Higher Education will continue to request the cooperation of international universities, and especially American universities, in our programs, and we hope that they will continue that cooperation for the foreseeable future and not based on this situation or others like it." Meanwhile, other students affected by their universities' moves were also continuing with their study plans despite Rutgers' unease. Joshua Barer, a third-year Jewish studies major enrolled at the University of Haifa, was dismissive of the security risks his school perceived. "If I was concerned about safety, I would have picked Switzerland or something," Barer said. JTA contributed to this report.