In a sudden reversal, the State University of New York has restored its sponsorship of Israel overseas programs a week after canceling them.
The action comes after The Jewish Week revealed that SUNY had quietly suspended longtime programs in Israel because of growing safety concerns for students following the July 31 Hebrew University cafeteria bombing that killed nine, including five Americans.
A SUNY spokesman said the reversal was prompted by Gov. George Pataki, who asked SUNY Chancellor Robert King to review the Aug. 13 decision by the University of Albany’s Office of International Education to cancel the decades-long sponsorship of semester and yearlong programs with several Israeli universities.
"At the governor’s request, the chancellor reviewed the situation and decided to overrule the University of Albany decision," said SUNY spokesman Larry Somkey.
He said the two students who were told last week by SUNY officials that they must find their own way to study in Israel can now continue through the state university.
Also, SUNY student programs in Israel will now be allowed to continue, Somkey said.
A Pataki spokesman said Monday that when the governor learned of the policy change, he was concerned because he feels "we need to be supporting Israel now and not withdrawing.
"He believes that New Yorkers must do everything possible … to travel to Israel to engage Israel, which is being victimized in this war on terrorism," the spokesman said.
On Sunday, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful H. Carl McCall criticized SUNY Albany for canceling the overseas program, calling on the Republican Pataki to intervene.
"It is wrong to turn our backs and end this program," McCall said. "If our students and parents are not afraid, our governor should also not be afraid."
Israel programs are administered for the SUNY system through the Albany campus. The programs averaged about 40 students a year until 2001, when it dropped to 10, and then two this year.
According to an Aug. 13 SUNY e-mail obtained by The Jewish Week, the Israel program was canceled after "regular, ongoing discussions at the highest administrative levels."
Pataki’s spokesman said the governor was not made aware of the original decision to cancel. A spokesman for King said the chancellor did not sign off on the original decision.
"This was done by the University of Albany, they coordinated it," the King spokesman said.
Albany junior Sarah Szymkowicz, one of the two SUNY students who is currently at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week Monday that she was surprised by the reversal and credited The Jewish Week for the change. The other student is Alissa Berman of Binghamton University.
Szymkowicz was highly critical of the cancellation and its timing: two weeks after the Hebrew University terrorist attack.
"Instead of getting support from my institution, a week after the bombing, I hear how I was being cut off and the program is canceled and they tell me ëyou have to fill out a bunch of paperwork if I want to stay,’ " said the psychology major.
Szymkowicz said she would continue to register directly through Hebrew University, which offered her a $2,000 scholarship after the policy change.
Szymkowicz’s mother, Diana Savit, said she was pleased by the reversal. Savit, a Maryland attorney, said she received a call from SUNY Albany program administrator Joan Savitt (no relation) Monday morning saying that King had instructed the Israel program to be reinstated.
Diana Savit said the practical effect for her daughter is minimal: If she goes through SUNY, the courses she takes abroad will be listed on her student transcript. They will not be listed if she continues through Hebrew University.
Calls to Joan Savitt were referred to Somkey at SUNY headquarters.
The Jewish Week story about the reversal generated several angry e-mails.
"I’m very disappointed," said Joel Lynn from Israel. "As someone who is living in Israel currently, I am well aware that there are dangers in daily life in Israel. However, as the USA learned the hard way last year, there are never any guarantees in any place, and college campuses are no exception."
"I am disgusted at SUNY’s decision to no longer allow Israel programs," said Ronn Torossian, a SUNY Albany alumnus. "It is shortsighted and biased against the State of Israel. Why don’t they disallow programs to the UK because of the IRA?"