The University of Wisconsin this week became the first major public university to reinstate its study abroad program to Israel.It had been among the scores of American universities that had suspended or revoked their Israel-based programs in 2001 and 2002 after a spate of suicide bombings and travel warnings.UW officials said they decided to re-establish their longstanding presence at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School due to heightened security measures at the Jerusalem campus, fewer recent terrorist incidents in and around Jerusalem, and indications that the region’s political climate is improving.“
The situation has clearly changed since 2002,” said Joan Raducha, UW’s director of International Academic Programs. “If students follow precautions, it’s a reasonable decision to study in Jerusalem at Hebrew University.”
Even so, Raducha’s office will require students to sign a liability waiver before enrolling in a school-sanctioned program in Israel or any other country where there is a U.S. State Department travel warning in effect.Prior to the onset of the second intifada in 2000 and subsequent program suspension, UW sent as many as 40 students to Hebrew University each year. Recently, however, less than a handful of UW undergraduates have studied annually at the Jerusalem university.
For nearly three years, while the UW program at Hebrew University was defunct, students wishing to study in Israel were required to withdraw from school; reapply as a transfer student, and hope their study abroad credits would transfer.The process, in addition to the precarious security situation, deterred many students from attending Hebrew University, said Jill Allenberg, a University of Wisconsin alumna who studied at the Rothberg School in 2003.“A lot of parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of their kids dropping out of school for a semester,” she said. “Now that students will be able to apply through the university, knowing their credits and grades will transfer, I think a lot more students will be willing to go.”
Allenberg, 22, who majored in Jewish education, was confident that Wisconsin’s Center for Jewish Studies would ensure that her Hebrew University studies would convert into degree credits at UW. She said a biology or political science major might have had a more difficult time transferring non-elective credits.Greg Steinberger, the executive director of UW’s campus Hillel, said since the program abeyance many students did not see Israel study as a viable option.“Only the kids who were the most committed to being in Israel and at Hebrew University were going because there was no guarantee that their credits would transfer,” he said.UW’s decision to reverse the policy came amid “mounting interest” in Israel study abroad programs, Steinberger said.
“We had big groups of birthright [israel] participants from Wisconsin, so clearly students wanted to travel to Israel,” he said.Peter Spear, the school provost, said at the heart of UW’s decision to halt its program at the Rothberg International School was safety and liability concerns. It was never about politics, he said. “There was the risk to the students and to the [financial] risk to the university should something happen,” he said.
In recent months, Spear said he fielded an onslaught of calls from alumni urging the university to re-evaluate its Hebrew University program. A committee composed of International Academic Programs staff, faculty from the Center for Jewish Studies, employees of the university’s risk management office and other UW officials convened periodically before reversing the policy.
UW’s study abroad program at Hebrew University dates back to 1978. With the onset of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles were being launched into Israel with frightening regularity, UW halted the program, only to resume it the following semester.When the program was again frozen in 2002, few expected that the cessation would last nearly three years. UW’s graduate exchange program with Hebrew University remained unimpaired during the suspension.
“Universities are realizing that their policies of canceling or suspending study abroad to Israel were not meant to be long-term solutions,” said Aaron Goldberg, associate director of Hillel’s Israel on Campus Coalition.Goldberg said in recent months he has seen a spike in the number of undergraduates interested in studying at Hebrew University. He predicted that UW’s decision to reinstate the program could open the way for other public schools to follow suit.
In recent months, some private institutions, including the University of Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Smith College in Northampton, Mass., reopened their Israel study abroad programs.Public universities have been more reticent to do the same because the state, in addition to the university, could be liable if a student was injured while abroad, universities and Hillel officials said.“Students are always referring to their time at Hebrew University as the most important year of their lives,” said Peter Weil, a board member of the University of Wisconsin Foundation and an active member of American Friends of Hebrew University. “Hopefully other schools will look carefully at their Israel policies and, when they do, I’m confident they’ll reach the same conclusion as the University of Wisconsin.”