The Fulbright Program may tout its international scholarship program as a “mainstay of America’s public-diplomacy efforts,” but the recent revocation of the program’s aid from seven students living on the Gaza strip has featured less diplomacy and more disaster. The program’s decision to pull the students’ funding was the result of inadequate research, poor planning and insufficient effort on the part of the U.S. State Department. Now scrabbling to rectify a public relations nightmare, the program should pause to understand just where exactly it went wrong.
Israel has imposed a closed-border policy in Gaza, prohibiting Palestinians from exiting except for medical emergencies. This tactic is an attempt weaken the strength of Hamas within the region.
It was the assumption of the Fulbright Program, funded by the U.S. State Department, that this policy would prohibit the seven students from being allowed to travel abroad to study. Because of this, it chose to “redirect” grant funding to other candidates last month.
But evidence suggests this assumption may have been built on shaky ground. It’s true that the Isralei government was initially sending mixed messages, first claiming that higher education was not a “humanitarian concern” worthy of exclusion from this travel ban and then later contradicting this message. But this discrepancy should have been cause enough for the State Department to investigate the legitimacy of the information on which it based its decision to revoke the grants.
Either way, the decision to pull the scholarships from the students was wrong. Instead of choosing to employ the “public-diplomacy” allegedly so important to the program, the State Department chose to take the easy way out. That was never the right decision. What it should have done was work with the government and students to find a way around these regulations.
Because he students of Gaza certainly didn’t choose to live under such restrictive policy. In fact, several have spoken out against the Hamas occupation in the area. In reality, they had little control over the fact that they got caught up in political power games, but were essentially punished as such. Would you want to be held personally responsible for the decisions your government has made?
Tactics designed to send a message between goverment factions shouldn’t impede students’ abilities to educate themselves. Both of these points should have been recognized by the State Department and they should have taken steps, as they are finally doing now, to help students in this tight spot.
The department now admits that its decision was the result of a “faulty decision-making process”. But in this situation, providing financial backing for these students was too important to become the causality of an administrative slip-up.
In creating a long-term plan for stability in the region internal localized organization necessary, and education is a key part of that strategy. Making it harder for smart, motivated individuals to get that education does little to fuel this effort.
Last week, amidst heavy criticism, the Fulbright Program finally corrected its error, giving the students their scholarships back. The local American Consulate also transported four of the seven to Jerusalem to help them get their visas. Considering the State Department’s initial apathy in this matter, this new-found energy and dedication – even if it has directly correlated to media frenzy – is commendable. Ignoring the fact that it showed up late to the party, the Fulbright Program should get a pat on the back – albeit a small one – for showing up at all.