The decision by both the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University to suspend their undergraduate Israel study-abroad programs for the semester -- a move taken as fighting still raged in Gaza and rockets fell on southern Israel -- has triggered criticism and stirred debate on both campuses.
According to the Anti-Defamation League's national office, only two other American institutions took a similar step, Occidental College in California and Duke University in North Carolina. In addition, New York University is delaying the opening of its "NYU in Tel Aviv" program until the fall.
The fact that most colleges went ahead with their Israel programs has prompted some to wonder if Penn and Rutgers reached their decisions prematurely.
"We are disappointed by the decision. We believed that this kind of decision could have been made by the individual students and their families," said Nancy Baron-Baer, associate regional director of the ADL.
The cancellations have revived a debate from earlier in the decade, when the intifada and suicide bombings virtually ground study-abroad programs to a halt.
Must a university err on the side of caution when it comes to a volatile situation? Or does postponing programs ill serve students and further isolate the Jewish state in an era when Israel's opponents have tried to use academic boycotts to undermine its standing internationally?
Also in question is whether students should knowingly be able to assume some risk, and whether universities should consider some parts of Israel safe and others, like the region closest to the Gaza strip, too dangerous.
Citing heightened U.S. State Department warnings, Penn discontinued its Israel programs mid-semester in 2002, during the second intifada. In January 2004, the university decided to allow students to study there if they applied for and received a waiver.
Several sources said that this policy has remained in place, but that the waiver became a mere formality in the past few years.
In all, 11 Penn and nine Rutgers students had planned to attend various semester programs. Three wound up officially withdrawing from Penn in order to go on their own. According to Rutgers Hillel, the majority of the school's students went without official sanction from the school.
"We are committed to our academic exchange programs with universities in Israel, and the scholarly collaboration and cross-cultural understanding that these programs foster," said Anne Waters, director of Penn's Office of International Programs. "The decision is not a blanket policy; it's a continuation of the policy that we are guided by the State Department."
Commenting on the Situation
Immediately after Penn came to a decision in mid-January, the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, published an editorial supporting the move.
"Although undergraduates are capable adults, Penn is responsible for the safety of all students, at home and abroad, and this must be the highest priority. In this case, sometimes a hot spot is simply too hot," stated the Jan. 15 policy editorial.
Then, on Jan. 21, the paper printed a column by three Jewish student leaders who took exception to the editorial.
"Rather than force students to withdraw from the University in order to study in Israel, a safety waiver would demonstrate the University's concern with the situation but still treat students as mature enough to make their own decisions," wrote Penn Hillel president Dana Greenberg, Israel chair of Penn Hillel Rebecca Bootin and president of the Penn Israel Coalition Brandon Paroly.
Reached in Israel, Penn junior Arielle Kane, a 21-year-old Near Eastern languages and civilizations major, said that the university had overreacted, adding that even if the cease-fire doesn't hold, Jerusalem is outside the range of the terrorist group's arsenal.
In the days before leaving, Kane had to file for a leave of absence from the university and register directly with Hebrew University. She is now taking Hebrew classes there, and said that she's not sure if Penn will accept her credits. But she added that even if she has to go to Penn an extra semester, the chance to study in Israel will have been worth it.
Rutgers, which according to its Hillel boasts the third-largest Jewish-student population in the country, also saw some dissent.
Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, released a statement decrying the policy: "We believe that a different decision would have been made if the Rutgers administration had a more in-depth understanding of Israel and the region. If the world disengages from Israel based on fear rather than knowledge, it's a loss not only for Israel, but for our students and our entire community."
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia did not issue a similar statement.
Roy Tanzman, president of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, is also seeking a meeting with Rutgers University President Richard L. McCormick to discuss the issue.