Student petition shows desire for Israel study

Michelle Ma

After gathering more than 500 signatures for a petition calling for Northwestern to “re-examine” its policy toward study abroad in Israel, students have submitted legislation to the Associated Student Government’s Academic Committee in hopes that it will reach Senate Wednesday.

The bill — written by fraternity Sen. Benji Rubin, a Weinberg sophomore — calls for administration to consider reinstating NU-sponsored study abroad programs in Israel, despite Israel’s status on the State Department’s travel warning list.

Within the last several months, some universities — including the University of Wisconsin-Madison — changed their policies to allow students to study abroad in Israel, although the State Department still “urges U.S. citizens to carefully weigh the necessity of their travel to Israel.”

NU will continue to follow the State Department’s recommendations of what countries are safe to visit.

“Israel is not off the State Department’s warning list,” said University President Henry Bienen. “That means what we say is you can go to Israel, but you won’t go there under Northwestern’s auspices.”

But the university will allow students to withdraw from NU to pursue their own study in Israel — or in any country on the warning list — and re-enroll when they have completed their study. Although NU will accept transfer credits from these unaffiliated universities, NU will not provide any financial aid or pre-approve any courses for credit, said Stephen Fisher, associate provost for academics.

Students who helped circulate the petition Spring Quarter said they want to raise student and faculty support in convincing administrators to allow university-affiliated study abroad programs in such cities as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“The West Bank and Gaza, yes, these are dangerous,” Rubin said. “But Israel outside of those places is safe and is an okay place for Americans to go.”

Shira Bergstein, an Education junior, left NU last fall to study abroad at Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Because my desire to have that experience in Israel was so strong, I decided to bypass the university and do it on my own,” Bergstein said.

She added that studying in Israel “was the single best decision I have ever made in my undergraduate career.”

Bergstein said the experience was not easy because she had to research the application process on her own, and pay for travel and Hebrew University tuition out of her own pocket.

Even if warnings for a particular country change slightly, as long as a country remains on the warning list, NU-endorsed study abroad is not negotiable, Fisher said.

“If we send a student to Jerusalem, what’s to stop her from going to the West Bank?” Fisher said. “We have no ability to control where that student goes.”

But some say Israel is a safe place to study.

“I feel very confident students would be safe,” said Adam SiMonday, executive director of Fiedler Hillel Center. “It’s unfortunate that a few gruesome, horrific acts of terrorists have created a culture that causes so much fear. It’s still statistically safer to travel to Israel than drive on the highways of the United States.”

For many Jewish students at NU, travel to Israel during the college years is “really important,” said SiMonday, but the level of student interest in supporting study abroad in Israel is varied, he said.

It’s been more than two years since NU has had a study abroad program through Israel’s Hebrew University, Fisher said. NU adopted the policy preventing students from traveling to countries on the warning list because of the SARS outbreak and other issues that could be “dangerous to students,” he said.

Sheena Tart-Zelvin, who has helped collect signatures, has reason to pursue change. The Weinberg junior said she chose NU because it was known for having a strong program with Hebrew University before her freshman year. After her first year at NU, the university adopted the policy and stopped supporting study abroad in Israel.

“I’d like to see the policy changed to where it’s the student’s choice,” Tart-Zelvin said. “I’m not angry — disappointed because it’s something that I was very much looking forward to in college.”

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