Students urge 'U' to start Israel program

BY RACHEL BRUSSTAR
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 26, 2011

Students have the option of studying abroad through the University on every continent but Antarctica. But, there is one country that has never been offered as an option for undergraduate students — Israel.

The University’s lack of undergraduate study abroad programming in Israel has recently sparked a grassroots effort on campus, with students petitioning for a University-sponsored study abroad program in Israel. However, the University doesn’t sponsor study abroad programs in countries with U.S. State Department travel warnings, which Israel currently has.

The petition was drafted in November 2010, released to the University student body after winter break and proposed to the Michigan Student Assembly and LSA Student Government this semester.

Created by WolvPAC, a student group committed to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship on campus and beyond through political activism, the petition calls on the University to address the current lack of a study abroad program in Israel, which LSA sophomore and WolvPAC member Caroline Canning called “unacceptable.”

"We thought it was unacceptable that Michigan doesn’t have partnership with any prestigious and world-renown Israeli universities,” Canning, also a representative of LSA-SG, wrote in an e-mail interview.

As of last night, 648 members of the University community signed the petition. WolvPAC aims to obtain 1,500 signatures by mid-February.

However, this isn’t the first attempt by students to call for a University-sponsored study abroad program in Israel. Previous efforts were made by WolvPAC, as well as the student organization American Movement for Israel, according to Canning. But this time, WolvPAC has adopted different methods to gain support from a large number of students, Canning wrote.

“We’re taking a different approach from what has been done in the past,” Canning wrote. “Before, AMI made presentations to the University’s International Travel Oversight Committee. There has never been a grassroots effort showing support from the general student body.”

The issue was first introduced to WolvPAC last year when the organization discovered that Michigan State University had created a study abroad program in Israel. This sparked discontent among the group’s members regarding University of Michigan study abroad programming, Canning wrote.

“Since winter 2010, we have been brainstorming different strategies to show (how the) committee failing to revise its study abroad policy towards Israel would negatively impact the University’s position as a leading global institution committed to academic excellence and comprehensive global understanding,” Canning wrote. “Almost every major institution has a study abroad program in Israel.”

Students who want to study in Israel have to do so through programs offered at other universities. However, this is often a more difficult process and deters students from the opportunity, Canning wrote.

“They must withdraw from the University, preventing them from transferring financial aid and grades,” Canning said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do not go to Israel when they would, because there isn’t an official University program.”

University policy regarding travel advisories is also an important factor in instituting study abroad programs.

According to Canning, a warning was issued by the State Department for travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in 2001.

"Since then the security situation has greatly improved," Canning wrote.

But according to the State Department website, a travel warning to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was also issued on Aug. 10, 2010.

John Godfrey, assistant dean for International Education at Rackham, wrote in an e-mail interview that security issues are essential to consider when assessing study abroad programming. It is against the University’s international travel policies to sponsor programs in countries in which a travel warning has been issued by the State Department, Godfrey wrote.

"We want the students (to) understand the safety, security and health conditions in the places they’re traveling and that they aren’t making plans for places that pose exceptional risk," Godfrey wrote. "Students are also asked to register their travel information with the U-M Travel Registry so we know how to contact them in the event of an emergency."

LSA sophomore Julie Sherbill, a member of WolvPAC, wrote in an e-mail interview that she believes the University’s stance on study abroad opportunities in Israel and other countries with travel warnings isn’t consistent.

“The University’s policy on State Department travel warnings is not as cut-and-dry as it seems,” Sherbill wrote in the e-mail interview.

According to Sherbill, the Law School offered a study abroad program at Israel's University of Tel Aviv Law School as recently as last year.

But according to Godfrey, the University’s current study abroad programs in Israel, like the Law School’s University of Tel Aviv program, are restricted to graduate students.

Canning introduced the petition to MSA and LSA-SG with the goal of persuading the bodies to pass a resolution in support of such a program.

“I feel this would especially benefit LSA students because Israel is a leader in so many fields ranging from medicine, to sustainability efforts, to political science,” Canning wrote.

Public Policy junior Steven Zuckerman, a Public Policy representative for MSA, introduced a resolution to MSA at last night's meeting calling on the Assembly to show their support for the petition.

Zuckerman said he has received only positive feedback since he sent an e-mail to MSA members regarding the petition.

“I think that if people realize the bottom line, which is that it’s not a political statement, it’s an actual concern of students that they can’t go abroad and (do it in) Israel at the same time, they have to take a semester off,” Zuckerman said. “I think people will really appreciate if we can give them that opportunity.”

According to Canning, WolvPAC originally anticipated negative feedback from the student body that could potentially cloud the organization’s efforts.

“We expected to get some negative feedback about this effort because often people try to politicize things involving Israel,” Canning wrote. “Luckily, we’ve only received positive feedback because I think we’ve made it clear that the issue has nothing to do with identity or politics, but simply educational opportunities.”

Sherbill also wrote that the issue affects all students, not only those who identify with the Jewish religion.

“At first, students think that this is only a ‘Jewish’ issue,” Sherbill wrote. “The reality is that this program would benefit all Michigan students because Israel has some of the best universities in the world and a longstanding political and educational relationship with the (United States).”

LSA freshman Laura Katsnelson, a WolvPAC member, expressed similar frustration with the University failing to offer undergraduates a chance to study abroad in Israel.

“As a freshman at the University, I was surprised when I realized that we don’t have an official study abroad program to Israel,” Katsnelson wrote in an e-mail. “For me and a lot of classmates, Israel is a definite possibility for study abroad and having a (University) program would make it a lot more feasible.”