Students from California State University (CSU) on a reinstituted year-long program at the University of Haifa say they’re reveling in their academic and social life in Israel.
CSU’s return to the Holy Land in 2012 came at the end of a decade-long ban imposed due to safety concerns over bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But that has not caused any misgivings for students like Benjamin Meis, a psychology major from San Diego.
“There hasn’t been one time in the past five months that I’ve felt threatened or that my life was in danger,” the 20-year-old recently told the Journal. Meis is one of eight CSU students enrolled at the University of Haifa.
In 2002, the bombings and shootings associated with the Second Intifada prompted the U.S. State Department to add Israel to an international travel advisory list. That led CSU — with more than 425,000 students on 23 campuses — to suspend its study-abroad program there.
But after lobbying by program supporters, senior University of California and CSU officials in 2011 held a three-day visit in which University of Haifa counterparts stressed that the visiting students were not endangered. The American group reinstated the program the following year.
“The perception [was] that the lack of safety went away,” explained student dean Hanan Alexander, who heads the International School and the Center for Jewish Education at the University of Haifa.
Hanan Alexander heads the University of Haifa’s International School.
However, CSU’s suspended programs at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem have yet to be reinstated.
“When we resumed programs in Israel, we felt it would be best to start with one program,” Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the CSU chancellor’s office, wrote the Journal in an e-mail. “The program in Haifa is doing well, and we’re receiving positive feedback from the students involved.”
Meis heard about the reinstatement of CSU’s program in Haifa two years ago, when he was a sophomore at San Francisco State University and fresh off a Birthright trip.
“I wanted to be more connected to the country and learn more about the people,” he said. “[But]...what really sold me was the honors psychology program.”
Meis said that his daily routine — which includes living in a dorm with Jewish, Arab and Christian Israelis, along with more than 800 students from some 40 nations — has changed his perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and life in Israel overall.
“I had a preconceived idea of what I’d be getting into, and I … was proven completely wrong,” Meis said. “It’s not as dangerous as you think; it’s not as war-torn as you’d think; people aren’t going to act like you think.”
While the threat of potential violence was one of the main concerns numerous family members and friends had when he decided to come to Israel, Meis now believes that “there’s a lot of misconception about Israel, a lot of misunderstandings — really, a lack of information.”
Israelis “don’t let [threats] affect how they live … life keeps going,” he said. “They can either sit scared, waiting for the next thing to happen, or they can keep living. It’s taught me a lot.”
Both Alexander’s and Meis’ remarks come amid a charged debate over a recently approved boycott of Israeli universities by the American Studies Association (ASA) to protest the treatment of Palestinians. (CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White denounced the boycott on behalf of the university system in a statement that read, in part, “Academic boycotts violate the basic tenets of higher education including academic freedom and scholarly dialogue.”)
Meis, for his part, said that actually being in Israel has broadened his and other students’ perspectives of the issues at stake.
“My entire perspective of those sorts of political issues and political turmoil that we perceive in the U.S. — of Palestinian sovereignty, the ‘two-state solution,’ the existence of Israel — those come up a lot, especially among the international students,” he said. “And you can constantly see people’s ideas changing, because they’re exposed to more details, more background, more stories — from different sides — that you don’t get outside Israel.”
The International School is housed in a modern, long and narrow, steel and glass structure that juts out dramatically from the hillside of Mount Carmel, overlooking Haifa Bay. In a discussion in his office, Alexander was adamant about the significance of the academic boycott and its potential ramifications for Israel and Jews.
“When the ASA comes forward and claims to deny the Jewish people their fundamental right to self-determination, they’re not defending human rights, they are a major offender of human rights, and we should stand up in righteous anger — as now hundreds of universities across the United States, and members of Congress and other leaders across the world have done: Stand up in righteous anger and condemn the haters.”
Matt McCartney, 25, is enrolled at CSU’s Channel Islands campus in Camarillo and studies international economics and Arabic on the study abroad program. As a Methodist growing up in Marietta, Ga., among few Jews, McCartney said he has found the experience of living among Jews, Muslims, Druze and a plethora of other ethnicities to be a revelation.
CSU Channel Islands student Matt McCartney.
“I didn’t know very much about Judaism in general — just the basics,” McCartney said. Still, he added, “I haven’t felt uncomfortable even once.”
His experience has given him an appreciation for the lack of understanding about the world that his peers back home sometimes exhibit.
“In the States, people don’t differentiate; they don’t know where things are in the Middle East,” McCartney said. “I told people I was coming to Israel, and a week later someone comes up to me and asks, ‘Dude — why are you going to Pakistan?’ ”
Exposing students to a different environment — and learning from that experience — is a driving force behind the program, Uhlenkamp said.
“As with any international studies program, the program in Haifa allows students to learn in an international setting and gain knowledge of other communities and cultures that is needed in the global economy of the 21st century,” he said.
Overall, Meis said he was “very happy” with the CSU-Haifa collaboration.
“I want to see more kids come here,” he said. “I want to see more kids experience Israel like I have — or, hopefully, in their own way. I want to see more people interested in these programs, and that’s going to be a large part of what I do
when I go home — to advocate for study abroad here.”