U.C. may scrap its Israeli Education Abroad Program

By mid-April, the nine-campus University of California system will make a definitive declaration on whether it will continue to send students to Israel to participate in its Education Abroad Program.

Or maybe it won't.

In January, U.C. students hoping to study in Israel next year — including the 11 from U.C. Berkeley — were informed that, due to ongoing violence, next year's programs were in jeopardy. Last week, students were again told that the EAP is keeping a watchful eye on Israel, and hopes to make a decision by mid-April — but could choose to change its position at a moment's notice no matter what decision it announces.

"We haven't decided yet," said Michael Reese, the Oakland-based assistant vice president of the U.C. system. "We're already at the application acceptance point in our process, and we have to let students know if they're going to Israel in the fall. I can't tell you what we're going to do yet."

U.C. also has to decide whether to bring home students currently in Israel — though there are far fewer there today than in the past.

"We've seen our student body over there drop from 55 students at the start of the academic year to 27 today," Reese said on March 15. "More than half have decided to go home. We lost three students this week."

According to Reese, the final decision on whether to suspend trips will be made by U.C. President Richard Atkinson, who is also a board member of the S.F-based Koret Foundation.

Even in Israel, such decisions are being made. Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion recently decided to cut short its spring semester for beginning rabbinical and cantorial students from abroad, giving them the option of going home.

The high degree of uncertainty is nerve-racking for U.C. students, who have been advised to come up with contingency plans not only for where they want to want to study next year but where they want to live.

"What's frustrating is the fact that not only do I have to wait, I still have to try to plan for next year," said Jose Luis Hernandez, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore majoring in psychology and religious studies. "If, at the last minute, they say I cannot go, it leaves me in the odd situation of having to deal with the things I haven't done because I thought I was going to Israel — such as obtaining housing or scheduling next year's classes.

"Right now, everything is in limbo. Even if they tell me I can go, at any moment before my leaving, I can be told I cannot go or vice versa."

Hernandez, who describes himself as "committed to go until they tell me I can't," said the lack of specific answers to his financial questions combined with the lurking possibility of a last-minute decision on Israeli programs may keep him grounded in Berkeley next year.

"When it came to the issue of studying abroad, they said we should have backups in terms of other countries, but even that wasn't very reassuring, because, mostly, we'd have to go through other programs," he said.

"Even if I had backups, it would be with other programs, it wouldn't be Israel, and we haven't figured out whether financial aid would take care of it. One of the only reasons I can study abroad is because of financial aid."

This year's total of 11 U.C. Berkeley students applying for EAP programs in Israel is slightly lower than normal, and several students may yet withdraw. Fourteen students have applied for programs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Arava or Beersheva in each of the past two years. Last year, four students withdrew from the program and one was denied.

If trips to Israel are canceled and students pulled home, it will not be without precedent. U.C. Programs in Indonesia and Thailand were recently suspended, with Thai programs set to restart next year.

Students were pulled out of China and programs suspended following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Programs were also canceled in Lebanon in 1975.

While the cancellation of next year's Israeli programs and even the evacuation of current students is still a distinct possibility, Reese emphasized that the U.C. system does not intend to sever its Israeli ties.

"Let me make one point. No matter what we do, no matter what decision we make, we will not abandon our programs in Israel," he said. "On the contrary, we've already decided that, should we call our students home or not, we will still leave our infrastructure and staff in place, including our study center directors. We will return."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.