Some US colleges are pulling students from overseas study programs in Israel as the Gaza fighting rages, though the relative calm beyond the immediate battle areas is raising questions in some quarters about why they had to leave.
Colleges say security was the top concern, citing advisories about hazardous travel from the US State Department and from insurance companies that cover students for health, accidents, security and even the cost of evacuation.
“On the one hand, we want to introduce students to the dimensions of conflict,” said Yehuda Lukacs, director of the Center for Global Education at George Mason University in Virginia. “But this was too much because their safety and security were challenged.”
It’s not the first time colleges have withdrawn – at least temporarily – from overseas study programs because of conflict. Just recently, the University of Massachusetts Amherst suspended programs in war-torn Syria, and St. Lawrence University in New York called off its program in Kenya for fall, citing a State Department travel advisory.
But the United States’ close ties with Israel, along with the distance of many of the programs from the central areas of conflict, are leaving colleges far from unified.
Suhaib Khan, a George Mason senior who worked in Ramallah in the West Bank in a program helping to promote Palestinian businesses, said he was “incredibly disappointed” that he was forced to leave prematurely. He arrived June 6 and left July 9, about a month early.
“As an adult, I could have made my own decisions,” said Khan, 21.
George Mason was one of at least seven schools nationwide to suspend a summer study program that operates in Israel or the West Bank. Others include Claremont McKenna College in California, UMass Amherst, the University of Iowa, Trinity College in Hartford, Michigan State and Penn State. UMass Amherst and New York University have also halted fall semester programs.
When Israel launched an air offensive against Hamas on July 8 in response to rockets fired into Israel and expanded its assault with ground troops 10 days later, officials at UMass Amherst were initially unfazed.
“We agreed that the program should go on even though rockets were flying,” said Jack Ahern, vice provost for international programs.
But that soon changed when the Federal Aviation Administration told US airlines July 22 they were temporarily banned from flying into Tel Aviv’s airport after a rocket exploded nearby. That lent an air of unpredictability as to whether students could get out if needed.
“With an airport closed for more than 24 hours, we don’t want students stuck,” said Lisa Sapolis, director of Trinity’s Office of Study Away.
UMass Amherst officials decided to cancel the fall semester program based on the State Department advisory, Ahern said.
“To study in a country in conflict can be extremely rewarding,” he said. “It was not a decision we take lightly. We try to err on the side of being permissive and allowing students to go where they want.”
Several universities in Europe also postponed summer programs at Israeli universities. But many US colleges and universities that operated in areas distant from the Gaza war have continued their studies.
‘Schools should act on reality, no perception’
Prominent Jewish American historian, Prof. Jonathan Sarna, president of the Association for Jewish Studies, questioned whether universities overreacted, noting Israel defended itself against most Hamas rockets with its Iron Dome air defense and its military superiority.
“There are huge gaps between perceptions of safety and reality,” said Sarna, also a professor at Brandeis University near Boston, which did not suspend its summer program in Israel.
Schools should act on reality, not perceptions in the media, he said. University administrators “find it easy” to rely on State Department advisories, he said.
Martha K. Risser, an associate professor of classics at Trinity, said she felt distant from the fighting as she led an archaeological dig with about 40 students at Tel Akko in northern Israel this summer.
“The closest experience any of us had were news reports,” she said.
About 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Gaza, where Israeli fighter jets were turning Hamas strongholds into rubble, shops and restaurants in Tel Akko were open, streets were bustling and sailboats dotted the Mediterranean, Risser said.
Khan, the George Mason senior, who studies international politics, said he never felt unsafe during his nearly five-week stay in Ramallah, though he acknowledged that unrest there related to Israeli soldiers’ search for the killers of three teenagers didn’t go unnoticed. He didn’t venture out late at night.
His experiences there, he said, taught him as much about home as the Middle East.
“I feel like studying abroad,” he said, “allowed me to understand how big the world is and how insignificant a lot of things are here in the US.”