Supporters of a University-sponsored study abroad program in Israel argue that programs would provide greater academic opportunities for students and enhance the University’s global competitiveness. While it’s refreshing to see University students taking an interest in the Middle East, there are several potential concerns that deserve consideration.

Steven Zuckerman, a Public Policy representative for MSA and supporter of the initiative, insists that the program is “not a political statement,” according to a Jan. 24 Michigan Daily article. But the petition’s sponsor, WolvPAC, is “a strictly political group committed to strengthening the US-Israel relationship through dialogue and lobbying,” according to its constitution.

The lack of consistency on the part of the sponsors is especially concerning given the growing national movement calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. To be clear, there are certainly those whose criticisms of Israel reflect nothing more than thinly veiled anti-Jewish prejudice. But this doesn’t imply that there can be no legitimate and morally grounded criticism of Israeli policy and behavior.

One of the foremost proponents of boycott is a man whose human rights record is unassailable: Nobel Laureate, South African anti-apartheid advocate and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The same man in 2008 was honored with the University’s Wallenberg Medal, which requires “unmatched heroism, courage and self-sacrifice in the protection and rescue of the persecuted.”

“Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime,” Tutu said in an article in Times Live. “While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.”

Many of us — myself included — may find it difficult to reconcile the idea of academic boycott with our commitment to academic freedom. A stronger rationale for opposing University-sponsored study abroad in Israel is that such programs may unintentionally further discrimination and violate the University’s commitment to equal opportunity.

Last month, for example, Human Rights Watch reported, “Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools and access to roads.” The situation within the Jewish state, of which around 20 percent of citizens are Muslim, is even worse. According to Haaretz.com, “segregation of Jews and Arabs in 2010 Israel is absolute.”

Supporters argue that University-sponsored study abroad in Israel would offer many academic and cultural opportunities. Under Israel’s current border policy, however, thousands of University students would risk being effectively barred from these opportunities.

According to the U.S. State Department, “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin … may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel.”

It gets worse: “U.S. citizens have been detained and/or arrested at the airport and at other border crossings on suspicion of security-related offenses … In some cases, Israeli authorities have denied American citizens access to U.S. consular officers, lawyers, and even family members during temporary detention.”

These are very real concerns. Last January, an American Harvard University law student of Egyptian descent was detained upon landing in Israel and eventually deported after she refused border officials’ requests to search her e-mail. A similar case involving a Wayne State University student occurred a few months later.

Will all University students — regardless of race, religion or political beliefs — have equal opportunities to participate in the proposed study abroad program? What measures will the University take to ensure that certain segments of the student body aren’t disenfranchised in the new program?

The proponents of the initiative, thus far, have failed to demonstrate sensitivity to these concerns. In his letter to the editor, LSA Junior Jacob Steinerman speaks of Israel as an idyllic tourist hotspot. “Where else can you go skiing, hiking, scuba diving,” he wrote (Study abroad in Israel, 1/26/2011).

If we truly wish to enhance the learning experience outside the classroom, we must transcend such sugar-coated views of the region. It’s also likely that University-sponsored study abroad in Israel will be perceived as a political statement and may result in our inadvertently endorsing segregation and de facto discrimination.

The opportunity to study in Israel and Palestine would provide an unparalleled learning experience. Why not a joint Palestinian and Israeli study abroad? Surprisingly, the idea isn’t as novel as it may seem — American University and George Mason already have similar programs up and running.

By partnering with a Palestinian as well as an Israeli university, the University would signal its commitment to promoting dialogue as opposed to monologue. Moreover, we will move one step closer to realizing the promise of the University’s mission — “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”

Hamdan Azhar is a University alum.

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