Could be Worse

I wrote here some days ago about a grave problem facing Israel here at Drew University. Things are now happening and balls are rolling. For the article about this issue that appeared in our school newspaper on Friday, go here.

Cross-posted here and at The Acorn, what follows is the op-ed piece I wrote on the topic, which was also in Friday’s paper:

While this year’s news that financial aid can now be applied to study abroad programs is a huge leap forward for the accessibility of study abroad opportunities for Drew students, a new development this week is a step backwards.

After centuries in exile, Jews returned to the land of Israel beginning at the end of the 19th century and at the start of the 20th century. In a post-Holocaust world, the United Nations was eager to recognize the renewed Jewish population of the British Mandate of Palestine as the modern State of Israel and did so in May of 1948.

In the years since, American Jews have taken the freedom of college as an opportunity to visit their homeland. In recent years, a program called Birthright has seen to it that every American Jew under the age of 25 be given a free 10-day trip to Israel.

For some, the prospect of only 10 days is not enough. For others, those 10 days only serve to develop a taste, leaving Birthright participants wanting more.

For these Jews, a semester abroad, studying in and learning about their people and their history is ideal. For some, it becomes a religious obligation.

I’m looking forward to spending the spring semester of my junior year in Israel. One Drewid was planning to spend the fall of 2008 in Israel, until we heard some alarming news last week.

When other members of Drew’s Jewish community and I, students and faculty alike, heard that no study abroad programs would be considered for addition to the list of approved study abroad programs to Israel now or in the foreseeable future, we were confused, angry and in search of answers.

We have been told that the rationale for this new policy is that Israel has been added to a State Department travel advisory list.

This does not mean that U.S. citizens cannot go to Israel. It doesn’t even mean that it’s particularly dangerous. It means that you should be careful and stay out of nasty neighborhoods. By that rationale, perhaps we should cancel Drew’s New York City semester programs.

Granted, “nasty neighborhoods” is an understatement. In Israel, that means the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city. Luckily, it’s hard to stumble into these by accident in the middle of the night. There are well-armed Israeli soldiers clearly marking these areas off.

I understand the logic. We don’t want to sponsor programs in dangerous places. Even if we don’t sponsor them by giving out financial aid, could Drew at least accept academic credit from them? Nope.

God forbid you should take a class in Tel Aviv, where walking down the street is safer than driving on the Garden State Parkway. To discourage you from so wantonly toying with your own mortal coil, Drew will refuse to recognize the academic merit of any classes one takes in Israel.

Not even my high school did that. I spent the fall of my senior year of high school studying in Israel. My academic credit from that transferred just fine. And yet now, in college, I’m being handheld and told to look out for passing cars as I try to cross the Atlantic.

I suggest a more flexible, understanding system. The State Department’s list could be a starting point. Countries on this list could warrant deeper consideration than such models of safety as Egypt-ahem-get.

Perhaps Drew could require students to attend-like students at most universities-a workshop on travel safety. Some consistency is also in order. This summer, one Drewid received Drew credit for a program in Lebanon, which has been on this same list for years!

On Wednesday morning MESA (Middle Eastern Students Association) President Lara Portnoy and Hillel President Jeremy Dery and I met with President Bob Weisbuch.

He told us that as a Jew, he was troubled by this policy, but told us that the policy is normative for universities of our size and that it is unlikely that it will go away.

He also said that although it was within his power to do so, he would not, out of respect for University procedure, overturn the policy.

The president also told us that it would be impossible to make an exception for Israel alone.

On the bright side, Weisbuch told us repeatedly how upset he is about this problem and told us he and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Paolo Cucchi are interested in developing a more “textured and layered” policy, in which countries can be considered individually.

I want to applaud the president for being receptive to our ideas and being willing to rework the study abroad policy with regards to the State Department travel advisory list.

As it stands today, the situation is not quite to our liking. Yet, things are looking up.


5 responses to “Could be Worse

  1. In case anyone else was interested in the background documents, here’s the link to the State Dep’t travel warning list:

    Drew’s posted list of approved programs abroad still shows a few in Israel, and in Kenya and Indonesia, which are listed on the State Dep’t site, too:

  2. Wait. I’m confused. I thought that they are already making an exception for Israel alone, being that they take credit for Lebanese institutions, but not Israeli ones. So, their policy is that everyone else gets a pass except for Israel, but that’s okay because the President of the University is upset by it, not that he’s doing anything about it. The President could overturn the policy in the name of fairness, but respect for procedure is more important than justice. Huh?

  3. davidamwilensky

    No. The president and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (with whom I met this morning) both noted that the summer loophole will be closed immediately.

  4. Hey:
    The Israel On Campus Coalition – finding its website is easy – should be informed of this.
    Same for the Union of Progressive Zionists.
    >> Arieh

  5. Pingback: The impending media circus? «

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