Study Abroad in Israel

A relatively recent conversation on Twitter brought up the issue of study abroad in Israel.  I recalled that during my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, the school did not facilitate programs in Israel, nor would it give credit to the intrepid Northwestern student who on his or her own studied in Israel.  With the violence of the Second Intifada in recent memory, this did not seem unreasonable at the time.

I was a bit surprised to discover that Northwestern has not since changed its policy, in contrast to many of its peer institutions.  To date, Northwestern students must drop out of the University in order to study in Israel.  (Under what circumstances they reapply or are reaccepted and transfer credits is not entirely clear to me.)

Lo and behold, about two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Northwestern alumna and Jerusalem Post correspondent Gil Hoffman saying that Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro was visiting Israel and suggested that he could be approached about the study abroad issue.  On December 21, I joined about twenty other alumni at a dinner meeting at the Tel Aviv Hilton.  To my pleasant surprise, Provost Daniel Linzer, and other administration and faculty members were also in the country and could join us.

I approached Provost Linzer about the study abroad issue, as it was explained to me that it was being reconsidered and the papers would ultimately stop at his desk.  He told me that even if a student and their study abroad program sign a legal waver, if anything happened (implication here being a terrorist attack), Northwestern could still be sued, and that the liability was huge.

A liability, that apparently many other universities are willing to take upon themselves.

I followed up on the 31st with a letter to the provost, with what is hopefully a persuasive argument for reinstituting study abroad in Israel.  I am only posting my letter now, because giving him a week to respond before posting online only seems fair.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Provost Linzer,

As a follow up to your recent visit to Israel, I want to thank you, as well as the other faculty members in attendance, for taking the time to meet with local Northwestern students and alumni.  I hope that the trip was both educational and enjoyable, from the perspective both as an educator and a Jew.

I want to say once again that I hope Northwestern reconsiders re-instituting a study abroad program in Israel at the undergraduate level.  As a former Medill student, I cannot help but take notice that hardly a day goes by that Israel is not on the homepage of the websites of The New York Times or The Washington Post, as well as other top mainstream media outlets.

At the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where I currently work, our logo is composed of three interlocking petals, an image based on 16th and 17th century maps depicting Jerusalem at the center of the world.  While the modern version might center on New York, Washington, D.C., or a network of petals reflecting our age of globalization, Jerusalem and Israel remain places of high concern and regard.

As a citizen of the Middle East and as a consumer of the news, I am also aware of the security risks that come along with living in “the center of the world”.  In fact, just as I was writing the previous sentence, I received a call from border patrol asking if I could identify someone going through passport control who claims (correctly) to know me.

I believe that Northwestern is not concerned merely with the safety of its students, on campus and abroad, but also the type of perceived threat.  Let me explain.  The perceived threat to most foreigners visiting Israel is that of terrorism. It is difficult to erase the mental images of buses blown apart.  These incidents are high-profile crimes that make headlines.

What doesn’t catch the worldwide media attention is when there is a mugging or a murder.  This is both because it is uninteresting to the non-local media consumer and because it happens relatively infrequently in Israel.  My point is that I feel safe here — very safe.  While street sense and being aware of one’s surroundings, especially at night is alone, is called for here, just like anywhere, I do not feel scared, and it doesn’t seem that my friends do either.  While I may be idealistic, I am not naive.  It is actually safe here.

I studied abroad in Chile during my junior year of Northwestern.  Following the advice of both literature and several locals I met, I walked around clutching my bag, constantly on the guard for pickpockets.  When I walked home at night, and even sometimes during the day, it was accompanied by a pit in my stomach.  Thankfully, nothing happened to me except for a non-violent purse-snatching.  I know that while it was an unforgettable cultural experience, it was also not the safest place to be, especially for a conspicuously tall, white woman.  Neither is South Africa, Cameroon, Mexico, and other approved Northwestern study abroad locations.

When I returned to campus at Northwestern, I did not feel any safer.  Even during the cold Chicago winter of 2004-05, students were being mugged on a regular basis, even while walking in groups and during hours that passerby are regularly about.  Two incidents particularly haunted me.  Female students were attacked at about 8 p.m. while walking together in the sorority quad, and another young woman was attacked at about 7:30 a.m. at the entrance to her off-campus apartment.

While I was concerned for my physical safety, Northwestern University was not an emotionally safe place for me either.  While the blame for my inability to make and maintain many friendships or feel a meaningful sense of community cannot be placed entirely with Northwestern, this nonetheless flavored my experience.  In contrast, I have found Israel to be a place where I have been able to become whole, emotionally and spiritually, with the assistance of true, close friends, who are willing to assist me with matters large and small.  It is this sense of community, in addition to a culturally-ingrained alert and response to any suspicious activity, that make me feel extremely safe here — in every sense of the word.

I cannot help but question whether Northwestern’s hesitation to reinstate study abroad in Israel since the violence of the Second Intifada died down is out of genuine concern for the safety of its students, or out of a misplaced fear of the relatively small risk of a student being harmed by an act of terrorism.  It seems to me that denying students an opportunity to receive credit for studying in this high-profile and academically-rich country is inconsistent with the other decisions made for student safety.

If I can be of any further assistance in this decision or in any Northwestern-Israel relationships, it would be my pleasure.

Ilene Rosenblum
B.S. Journalism, Medill Class of 2006


2 Responses to “Study Abroad in Israel”

  1. 1 Yisroel Reiss January 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Ilene, I loved hearing about this story. Yeah for the Israel advocacy!

  2. 2 Ilene January 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks for the feedback! That post wasn’t supposed to be available until January 6, as it is dated. What the heck happened?

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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