Universities cancel study abroad in Israel in wake of Gaza war


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 University psychology student said Jan. 25 from Jerusalem. “ 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.”

Leichtman’s school was not alone. Citing security concerns during the Israel Defense Force’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, Rutgers joined ranks with Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month in canceling their study abroad programs in Israel.

The news of the cancellations comes on the heels of a Nov. 25 announcement by the University of California system that it would overturn its 2002 decision to suspend study abroad programs to Israel. The U.C. system hopes to have students enrolling for Israel study programs by next summer for the 2009-10 school year.

Students at school where the spring programs were canceled, were sent letters and e-mails notifying them of the change. Given the 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, to show my support,” Leichtman said. “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.”

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,” she said.

“I believe it was the decision from the [university’s] risk assessment committee that it was unsafe to come to Israel at this time,” explained Yoni Kaplan, director of Rothberg’s division of undergraduate studies. “I think that it was the wrong decision. Israel, and specifically Jerusalem, continues to be safe for students from abroad.”

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.”

JTA contributed to this report.