The State University of New York has suspended all of its overseas programs in Israel, citing last month’s terrorist attack at Hebrew University where nine people (including five Americans) were killed, The Jewish Week has learned.
"[SUNY] has decided after regular, ongoing discussions at the highest administrative levels, to suspend all of our programs in Israel at this time," according to an Aug. 13 e-mail sent to students and parents by Steven Thomson, director of the office of International Education at SUNY’s Albany campus. The e-mail was obtained by The Jewish Week. The Albany campus administers the Israel programs for most of the statewide SUNY system, including 17 four-year colleges.
The revelation comes as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian campus activists gear up for a renewed battle on American colleges and universities over the Palestinian intifada, approaching its third anniversary on Sept. 28.
"Our concern for the safety of our program participants is at the very top of our list, and we would urge you to heed the [U.S. State Department] travel warning and return to the United States," wrote Thomson.
The memo, which also went out to SUNY administrators, calls the latest travel warning issued by the State Department "subsequent to the bombing at Hebrew University [as] a contributing factor in the decision …
"When we conclude that our young students may be in peril, we must do what we can to diminish the chances that something horrible might happen," the memo stated.
image2goeshere Albany junior Sarah Szymkowicz, one of only two SUNY students who applied this year, was "very upset" by the policy shift, her mother, Diana Savit, said Monday.
Szymkowicz is already in Israel, attending orientation at Hebrew University.
"Her immediate reaction was, ‘We have to figure out a way for me to stay,’ " said Savit, a Maryland attorney.
Szymkowicz left for Israel on July 31 with the ill-fated American group bound for the Mount Scopus campus Hebrew University.
She exited the student center cafeteria only 20 minutes before a terrorist bomb exploded wounding scores of people and killing eight, including Janis Coulter, assistant director of the Office of Academic Affairs for Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. (See opposite page.)
Besides Szymkowicz , who had signed up for a one-semester program, there was one other student from SUNY Binghamton affected by the change, according to Joan Savitt, who administers the Israel programs for SUNY with Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University and Ben-Gurion University.
SUNY’s Israel overseas programs began in 1976.
Savitt said in recent years there was an average of 35 to 40 students participating in a semester or year abroad program until the Palestinian revolt erupted in September 2000. The number of applicants then plunged to 19 last year, and two applicants for the fall semester, which began two weeks ago.
SUNY administers 300 study abroad programs, she said.
"This isn’t a 9-11 thing, this is an intifada thing," Savitt said about the decline in applicants. She said she was not part of the decision to suspend the programs.
She didn’t know if and when SUNY sponsorship of Israel programs would resume. "I’m not really happy about it," she said
Under the new policy, "I will tell students [Israel] is no longer a SUNY program."
But she said she would still refer qualified students to individual Israeli universities. "The policy is still going to be that students who want to be considered for study in Israel are going to apply through my office," Savitt said.
In April, the University of California recalled 27 students from the Israel Education Abroad program. Officials said the 2002 programs were also suspended.
The SUNY e-mail said officials regretted "the necessity of this action, particularly because of the high level of commitment shared by the two SUNY students who are currently studying at Hebrew University."
In urging the students to leave Israel, SUNY officials said "If you return, we will assist you with getting registered and settled in on your home campus in the U.S. for the fall 2002 semester."
If the students decided to study in Israel, they would sever ties with SUNY, their tuitions would be returned and they would have to register with Hebrew University independently, the e-mail stated.
"We recognize that you may decide to remain at Hebrew University for the fall semester and we cannot, and would not compel you to return to the U.S.," Thomson wrote.
"Simply put, if you decide to be a direct enrollment student at Hebrew University despite the suspension of our study abroad program, we will work to assure that you are not penalized and that you lose nothing from this experience," the e-mail continued.
Amy Sugin, director of Hebrew University’s New York office, expressed disappointment.
"But I know that they were with us for a long time and we appreciate that and look forward to the time when they can reinstate the programs."
Diana Savit said she did not believe the suspension is a statement against Israel.
"I’m not happy about it, but being a lawyer myself I can understand why they would do this: They’re concerned about their liability. They are saying, ‘Stay if you want, but don’t look to us if you get hurt.’ "
"We have run our programs in Israel with pride for many years," Thomson wrote. "We hope and pray that we will be able, on the basis of peace and stability, to resume our sponsorship."