Hebrew University provost says students safe but numbers down

The only injury suffered by an overseas student at Jerusalem's Rothberg International School this year took place in Turkey. The student at the Hebrew University school had an accident while on vacation.

Menahem Milson didn't make light of the incident, but the school's provost relayed the story during his recent visit to San Francisco as if to prove that the current instability in the region is having no impact on the students at the university this year.

If only he could convince other potential students — enrollment is way down for the coming year.

Milson has a long career as an academic, but he also served as head of civil administration for the West Bank. An expert on Islam and fluent in Arabic, Milson served as the translator for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

Turning to the Mideast situation, Milson commented that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made sweeping concessions, only to be rebuked by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"Arafat deliberately rejected [a peace accord] and started a war of liberation instead. Now we have a test of wills," he said. "I hope my people will stay determined not to let terrorism scare us away from Israel. We won't be pushed out — we have a will and a resolve to defend ourselves."

Nevertheless, when the violence broke out in Israel this year, most of the students there chose to stay put.

That a full 85 percent of undergraduates at the Rothberg School remained serves as testament to their satisfaction with the program, Milson said.

"Life on campus is safe," he said. With the exception of the frequent shooting taking place between Beit Jala and Gilo, which are both on the border of the disputed territories, he said, "life in Jerusalem is safe. I'm not denying reality or the facts, but a selection of pictures on TV tends to distort the totality of the situation."

In regard to the 15 percent who left the school, Milson believes it was more because of parental pressure than the students' anxieties. Of those who left, all were undergraduates.

But admittedly, enrollment for the coming year does not look promising. Exactly how much it is down is difficult to determine, since some potential students are delaying sending in their applications, and others may still withdraw them.

And because the numbers from North America are way down and the largest group of students is from the United States, enrollment as a whole is suffering.

"We see it as a passing storm," Milson said. "Many students and parents have been affected by the State Department travel advisory about Israel. But I think it's exaggerated."

No programs at the school have been impacted, he said, and all extracurricular activities are still going on, with heavy security measures in place.

"We follow strict requirements from the Ministry of Education," he said. "And we're very strict about not allowing students to behave with unnecessary bravado."

Students are urged not to visit the Old City unsupervised, and they are cautioned to avoid crowded public areas, like the Mahane Yehuda market.

The Rothberg School, which is specifically for students from abroad, caters to three different populations. The number of undergraduates fluctuates, with usually 350 in the fall semester and 600 to 700 in the spring. In addition, there are usually about 350 graduate students, and 300 new immigrants in preparatory programs.

About 85 percent of all undergraduates are from the United States, many of them American Jews on a junior year or semester abroad; another 7 percent or so are from Canada.

The graduate student population tends to be more diverse, the majority European and many of them not Jewish. They can obtain a master's degree in Jewish education, Jewish civilization, the Bible, religious studies, history and culture of the modern Middle East, or modern Israeli society, all taught in English.

The new immigrants, many of them with no income, tend to be mostly from the former Soviet Union, undertaking a year of preparatory studies to learn Hebrew and other prerequisites before entering an Israeli university program.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."