Controversy Abroad

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is flaring up again. A petition was placed on the desk of the California State University Chancellor last month claiming that an Israel study abroad option is an endorsement of apartheid. This letter — signed by 81 CSU faculty members and 46 students and alumni — cites concerns over safety, discrimination, budget cuts and political issues related to the lack of an equivalent study abroad program in Palestine. These are legitimate concerns of student protection and funding that exist for many other travel abroad programs, but not enough to prevent thousands of students from seeking a first-hand education in Israel. The issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict is extremely complex, but if there is a demand to study in Israel, CSU should allow its students to pursue it in the name of education. CSU initially brought the Israel study abroad program to a halt in 2002 because the country landed on the U.S. State Department’s travel-warning list. The petition that came out in early December insists that students face dangers in Israel, citing events where one American student lost an eye and another was killed in 2010, though they were not in Israel as part of study abroad programs. While these are unfortunate instances, the issue of safety goes deeper because there are other factors to consider.

Safety is a concern for many study abroad destinations — some arguably more dangerous than Israel. To go on a study abroad trip is an inherently dangerous decision — from diseases, to crime, to the naïveté that comes with living in a foreign country. Dr. Samuel Edelman, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, insists that the idea that Israel is unsafe for students is a way to de-legitimize the country. Statistics on the safety of different abroad programs are difficult to come by, as many students live at universities not affiliated with their U.S. college. Yet, every country has its horror stories, such as a University of Colorado student who contracted a serious case of E. coli in India in 2005, a Barnard College student who was raped in Mexico in 2001 and three St. Mary’s College students who were attacked while studying in Guatemala in 1998. Therefore, if universities cut off ties with every abroad destination that threatened a student’s safety, students wouldn’t manage to cross any borders.

Additionally, the CSU isn’t planning on sending their students over to Israel with no support — instead, the system sent its director of international programs and its risk assessment manager to the country to scope out the safety of the current environment. The University of California did its own safety assessment and was able to reopen the travel abroad program in 2009. As long as safety measures are taken and students understand the possible dangers, CSU students should have the option of studying in Israel.

And the reality is, students do want the option. According to the most recent Open Doors data (generated by the Institute of International Education), demand to study abroad in Israel increased 60.7 percent from the 2008-09 academic to 2009-10. Currently, Israel is pushing 17th place for most popular study abroad location, with 3,146 American students visiting in the 2009-10 academic year.

There is value to be derived from studying in a historically rich place like Israel, which also holds the title of being the only democratic country in the Middle East. One major complaint addressed in the petition against the abroad program was that students could face discriminatory treatment in Israel based on race and ethnicity. This is a reality, but a school system should not hold a student back from studying in a country where human rights violations occur, because traveling abroad can be an essential opportunity to move out of one’s comfort zone and experience how the other half lives. Discrimination occurs in every country, which must mean the true area of contention is the political implication that comes with an American university system endorsing trips to Israel.

This is a matter of academic freedom — the freedom for students to study and experience worlds outside of their own. David Klein, a mathematics professor at CSU Northridge and the man spearheading the petition, says the fact that CSU can actively cut ties with “institutions that participate in apartheid” is in fact an exercise of academic freedom. He rationalizes this statement by comparing it to the United States preventing its students from traveling to Nazi Germany during World War II. Ultimately, the Israel-Palestine conflict is such a complicated issue that it is difficult to determine what is correct. Many countries have political enemies (for instance, we have study abroad programs in Seoul, but not Pyongyang) and there are not arguments about why there aren’t programs in both sides of those conflicting states — therefore, the demand for equal programs in Palestine and Israel is an overreaching request. There are some ways that CSU students could still travel abroad to Israel without the school system showing a preference of Israel over Palestine. According to Adrian Beaulieu, dean of international studies at Providence College, it has been a common trend since 2004 for universities to put bans on study abroad trips to Israel, but students can get around the bans by fulfilling requirements, such as gathering signatures for specialized waivers. Stacey Tsantir at the University of Minnesota, explains that petitions to study in Israel are one of the most common and are often approved. Therefore, CSU could essentially ban trips to Israel without stifling those who are especially committed to the journey.

It is most important to make sure that the students are properly educated in order to make an informed choice on studying in Israel. It shouldn’t matter if 81 faculty members are against the program — the choice has to come from the students.