Jewish Journal

University Students Returning to Israel

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Mar. 17, 2005 at 7:00 pm


American student enrollment at Israeli universities is on the upswing, some U.S. institutions are mending broken ties, and others are initiating new contacts.

Although given numbers differ, there is broad agreement that after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, enrollment from the United States plummeted 75 to 90 percent in the following two or three years.

Among the hardest hit was the Hebrew University's popular year-abroad program at the Rothberg International School.

In the last "normal" year before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, between 800-900 Americans were in attendance, said Peter Willner, executive vice president and CEO of the New York-headquartered American Friends of the Hebrew University.

By 2002, with the intifada in full swing and after the killing of San Diego student Marla Bennett in the terrorist bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria, enrollment plummeted to 75.

However, in the current academic year, some 300 U.S. students are on campus and Willner expects the figure to rise to around 400 with the start of the 2005 fall semester. Similar improvements are being reported at Hebrew University's six-week Hebrew-language summer sessions.

Following the lead of Canada's University of Toronto last year, the University of Wisconsin, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Washington University in St. Louis and Smith College have recently resumed their Israel programs.

The improved security situation in Israel and warming relations with the Palestinian Authority are credited for much of the upswing, but major roadblocks remain.

One obstacle regularly cited by American and Israeli university administrators is the U.S. State Department's continuing warning against travel to Israel. The Caravan for Democracy of the Jewish National Fund recently launched a campaign petitioning the State Department to reconsider the warning.

Privately, some officials at American universities have also noted pressure from their insurance companies not to expose their students to risks in Israel.

Nevertheless, Michigan State and Indiana University have recently launched first-time programs in Israel, said Ilan Wagner, the Jewish Agency emissary for American students, while new academic initiatives are springing up in sometimes unexpected places.

Last summer, while most major American universities were still hanging back, the small Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa launched an innovative program at the Bar-Ilan University Law School, which has drawn students from around the world.

The program, which has won enthusiastic praise from the accrediting American Bar Association, had only four applications in early March of last year. At the same time this year, director Michael Bazyler had already registered 51 applicants for the 2005 summer session.

Other Israeli institutions are also reporting encouraging upticks in American student enrollment, though still lagging well behind pre-intifada numbers.

"At Tel Aviv University, we have seen a slow but steady increase in our overseas programs since 2003-04, even before the current cease-fire," said program director Ami Dviri. "Currently, we have more than 200 American students, about half of our pre-2001 enrollment, and we expect a larger number this fall."

Similar percentages hold for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with 80 Americans enrolled in Middle East and environmental studies in 2000, 31 in 2003, and currently 42 students, according to spokeswoman Courtney Max.

Bar-Ilan University has seen a smaller decline in its pre-intifada enrollment of 60 overseas students in its freshman-year program.

"We have not been as hard hit as other universities because we have a higher proportion of Orthodox students, many of whom stayed on as yeshiva or seminary students," said Rabbi Ari Kahn, director of the foreign students program.

The Whittier Law School program, the only one of its kind in Israel last year, drew 20 first-year law students from across the United States, Australia and Taiwan, half of them non-Jewish.

Some may have been attracted by the program's promise of warm Mediterranean beaches, swinging nightlife in nearby Tel Aviv, great shopping and ample time for travel, but the four-week study session was anything but a snap.

An effusive inspection report by the American Bar Association held up the program as a "model" for U.S. law schools and noted that "if anything, the courses were academically too demanding."

The program's three courses on "Human Rights in the Age of Terror," "State and Religion," and "Holocaust, Genocide and the Law" were taught by Bazyler of Whittier College (whose most notable alumnus was President Richard Nixon) and two Bar-Ilan scholars.

Bazyler, the Siberian-born son of Holocaust survivors, and a leading authority on the judicial aspects of Holocaust restitution, was recently named by his law school as The "1939" Club Law Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies.

He gives much of he credit for initiating the Israel program to Whittier Law School's Neil Cogen, whom Bazyler lauds as "the only dean at an American law school who is an Orthodox Jew" -- and this at a Quaker-founded college in conservative Orange County.

Beyond the educational benefits, the program proved "a very special experience at a special time" for the young men and women who returned home as "legal and campus ambassadors for Israel," Bazyler said.

While all students were instructed in security precautions, Bazyler said, "Many told me that they felt safer in downtown Tel Aviv than in downtown Los Angeles."

One of the students, Wendy Yang, agreed. As a highlight, she recalled a private visit with Aharon Barak, president (chief justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court and, in summing up her stay, wrote:

"This was an eye-opening experience for me as a Taiwanese American and a Buddhist.... The Israelis are among the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met, and the personal connections and closeness is not something found here in America.

"The summer abroad in Israel was the best learning experience anyone could have hoped for," she continued. "Beyond learning the law there was the courage and identity of a great nation."

Such word of mouth by many participants has sent applications soaring for the two and four-week courses of the 2005 summer session (details are available at www.law.whittier.edu/israel). A grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will subsidize the tuition of 12 Los Angeles-area students.

At other American institutions, such as the 10-campus University of California, the relationship with Israeli universities has been "on hold" since 2002, although Gary Rhodes, director of the Education Abroad Program at UCLA, said that the decision was under constant review.

He expressed the hope that ties will be reactivated as the security situation in Israel keeps improving and the State Departments travel warning is rescinded.

A trickle of UC students have continued to study in Israel on their own initiative and expense, although credit for courses taken there is no longer granted automatically when these students return to their home campuses.

At universities that have resumed or started their Israel programs, the voices of influential alumni can be a persuasive factor.

Peter Weil is a Los Angeles attorney, a board member of the University of Wisconsin Foundation and former regional president of the American Friends of Hebrew University. He said he visited the Hebrew University and personally checked out security measures on campus.

Well satisfied with the results, Weil reported his findings to Wisconsin administrators, who listened attentively.

"I would encourage alumni of other universities to take similar steps," said Weil, who also serves as president of the American Jewish Committee chapter in Los Angeles.

In the more hopeful current atmosphere, plans for future enrollments of overseas students in Israel are soaring well beyond pre-intifada years (according to the Institute for International Education, some 4,000 American college students were in Israel in 1999-2000, while the Jewish Agency cites a more modest number of 1,154, not counting yeshivot).

The Israel on Campus Coalition, made up of 26 Jewish organizations, launched a "Let Our Students Go!" campaign last fall that aims for 6,000 U.S. students in Israel within six years.

Vastly more ambitious is the MASA (Hebrew for "Journey") initiative, approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Jewish Agency in December.

Though no timetable is given, MASA's goal is to eventually up the enrollment at Israeli universities to 20,000 students from the United States and the rest of the Diaspora.


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