Inside Higher Ed: Politicisation of study abroad

By Elizabeth Redden, for Inside Higher Ed

December 6, 2011

Eighty-one California State University faculty, staff and administrators, and 46 students and alumni, have signed an open letter opposing the reinstatement of study-abroad programming in Israel. The letter, sent on Friday to California State’s chancellor, Charles B. Reed, outlines six concerns, among them threats to student safety and the possibility that students of Middle Eastern origin would face discriminatory treatment in entering and moving around Israel. The letter asserts that it would be “one-sided” to restart the study-abroad programme in Israel without establishing similar programmes in cooperation with Palestinian universities, and states that “CSU participation with the government of Israel in the proposed study abroad program could be interpreted as an endorsement of the international crime of apartheid.”

“CSU should exercise moral leadership by not reinstating the study-abroad programme in a nation that practises institutionalised racism at a very deep level, at the level of apartheid,” said David Klein, a professor of mathematics at CSU Northridge and the primary author of the letter.

The “apartheid” label, applied to Israel by such luminaries as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, is much contested by supporters (and some critics) of Israeli policies. Some scholars who see Israel as an apartheid state have advocated severing ties with Israeli universities – à la the academic boycotts of South African universities in the 1980s – but the controversy at CSU is relatively unique in centring on study abroad specifically. Seeking to derail study abroad in Israel is a new tactic of the country’s critics on American campuses.

California State administrators are still deciding whether to resume study-abroad programming in Israel, suspended since 2002 because of safety concerns. Like many systems and universities, CSU has a policy prohibiting study abroad in Israel and other countries on the US State Department travel warning list. However, last summer, CSU’s director of international programmes and its risk assessment manager travelled to Israel to explore the possibility of once again allowing study abroad there; the system also hired an outside security firm to conduct a risk assessment. A decision about whether to re-establish the programme will likely be made in the near future, said Claudia Keith, CSU’s spokeswoman. “We’ve had correspondence from both sides, but our decision will be based on the safety of the students,” Keith said.

The Israel on Campus Coalition has been in communication with CSU administrators on this issue. “We are fully supportive of Chancellor Reed and his staff being careful, taking all perspectives and information into account, and proceeding with all due deliberate speed in making their decisions about reinstating study abroad in Israel,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the coalition’s executive director. “We believe their process will conclusively show that Israel is a safe and secure place for students to study and it provides excellent educational opportunities. In my view, those are the considerations that matter.”

“There’s no political litmus test that’s applied to other study-abroad opportunities elsewhere in the world,” Kuperberg said. “Faculty and administrators resist such litmus tests.”

Yet Klein described Israel as a special case. Asked, for example, about the claim in the letter that CSU should not have an Israel study-abroad programme in the absence of parallel programmes at Palestinian universities – an unusual “equal time” argument in study abroad, as there has never been a presumption that colleges with programmes in India or China would, for example, have similar programmes in Pakistan or Taiwan – Klein said that the statement “addresses a situation that is unique to Israel and Palestine. And that is the extreme imbalance in US universities and US media, US culture in general, towards Israel and Palestine – the imbalance in favour of Israel.

“Israel is the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, it has the most powerful lobby of any country, and the control over academic discourse critical of Israel is extreme in the United States. So I feel that somebody needs to stand up to this, and many other people do too,” Klein said.

The signatories of the letter include six deans or associate deans, one vice-president of student affairs, and one provost (Harry Hellenbrand, of CSU Northridge). The letter states that not every signatory necessarily shares all the concerns articulated in the letter, but all share the common conclusion that the study-abroad programme should not be reinstated.

Yochai Shavit, Israel fellow for the San Francisco Hillel, said of the letter that “The Hillels of California are monitoring the situation together with the Israel on Campus Coalition, Israel Consulate, JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council], JPAC [Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California], SPME [Scholars for Peace in the Middle East] and other allies, and will respond strategically to ensure that the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees uphold their commitment to afford Jewish and non-Jewish students the freedom to study in the optimal educational environment that Israel higher education has to offer.

“We look forward to embarking on a coordinated campaign to encourage CSU students to take advantage of studying in Israel and understand the opportunities they have to choose from,” Shavit said.

Study abroad to Israel is increasing, up 60.7 per cent in one year, according to the most recent Open Doors data. Israel is the 17th most popular study-abroad destination, between the Czech Republic and Chile; 3,146 American students studied there in 2009-10, compared with 1,958 the previous year.

“When we see these jumps, we try to understand why, and one thing we definitely see is that more and more institutions are open to sending students to Israel,” said Avi Rubel, North American director for Masa Israel Journey. In 2010, the organisation gave grants of $50,000 (£32,000) each to eight universities for developing study-abroad programmes in Israel, and this summer it is helping to facilitate and fund a study-abroad programme involving a consortium of US business schools and a Tel Aviv university.

Adrian Beaulieu, dean of international studies at Providence College, said that since 2004 there has been a clear movement away from blanket bans of study abroad in Israel. Increasingly, colleges allow it with some restrictions – such as requiring signatures on specialised waivers. Stacey Tsantir, director of international health, safety and compliance at the University of Minnesota, said the university does not approve travel to Israel across the board, but an International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee considers petitions from individual students, as well as from departments or units that wish to sponsor a study-abroad programme in a country on the State Department Travel Warning List. “Israel is one of the most common petitions made by undergraduate- and graduate-level students and is commonly approved,” Tsantir said.

The University of California restarted its formal study-abroad programme in partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2009. Also in 2009, at UC Davis, a student group called the EAP Equality Coalition formed to oppose a faculty-led summer study-abroad programme to Israel on Arab-Israeli relations. “We argued that the idea of the study-abroad programme was inherently discriminatory against students who are Arab and Muslim,” said Abla Harara, a 2010 graduate of UC Davis who spearheaded the campaign. “Any students whose names raised red flags would automatically be stopped for questioning at the airport.” (The EAP Equality Coalition’s petition can be found here.)

Zeev Maoz, the UC Davis professor who taught the summer study-abroad course – and still does; it’s scheduled again for summer of 2012 – said the petition had no practical effect. “I think what happened is a bunch of people with certain political views and significant academic hypocrisy tried to prevent students from engaging in an intellectual endeavour. And it just didn’t work,” said Maoz, a distinguished professor of political science.

Maoz said he hadn’t seen similar protests regarding study abroad in countries like Lebanon or Syria – countries he cannot travel to because of his Israeli origin. That said, he criticised academics who would seek to curtail international study of any sort. “I’m a critic of Israeli policies – don’t get me wrong – but that aside, I think that students have the right to study Israeli-Arab relations. If there’s an opportunity to study by going to the place, by meeting Israelis, meeting Arabs, anyone who objects to it shouldn’t be holding an academic position, because academia is about intellectual curiosity, about studying even things that you don’t necessarily like or agree with.”

Klein, of CSU Northridge, said that cutting off engagement with Israeli universities is an exercise of academic freedom, not an abridgement of it: “We’re choosing not to have relationships with institutions that participate in apartheid, in the same way that in the lead-up to World War II, universities broke off relations with universities in Nazi Germany.”

Maoz, however, offered a different interpretation. “They’re raising the notion of academic freedom, and what they’re advocating is putting limits on academic freedom,” he said. “To me, this is the epitome of hypocrisy.”

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