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No Ordinary Summer For Students in Israel War Zone

The Michigan State University students were still jet-lagged from their ten-hour flight when news of rockets striking Sderot reached them in Jerusalem. The next morning, June 29 — just the third day of their summer Jewish Studies program in Israel — the students heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaim Israel “ready” for what would soon expand into the deadliest clash between Israel and Hamas in years.

Ken Waltzer, director of the Jewish Studies program in East Lansing, swiftly phoned Marc Bernstein, the MSU program leader on the ground with the eight students. Neither was too worried: Major cities had yet to be targeted by Hamas rockets.

But over the next ten days, the conflict continued to intensify, with rockets reaching Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and even Haifa.

Junior Nate Strauss said Bernstein was planning the group’s itinerary two days in advance so it could be reviewed back in East Lansing and confirmed safe.

“We’re all nervous we’re going to be sent home,” Strauss said at the time. Those fears proved well-founded.

On July 14, after an emergency meeting by the university’s Risk and Security Advisory Committee, and upon recommendation by a global risk assessment firm, Michigan State voted to suspend the program and bring the students home.

The university thought “things were changing for the worst,” Waltzer said. “There was already talk about a ground invasion, and they worried about civil unrest around Mt. Scopus and about Ben Gurion [Airport] becoming a target — which is telling, because both those things happened a week later.”

The MSU students were evacuated back to America about 48 hours later.

Such risk assessment and evacuation protocols have become standard procedure for study abroad programs at schools across the country. It is perhaps not surprising that universities would exercise caution in sending students to the war-torn Middle East. Nonetheless, Israel is the 18th most popular study abroad destination for American students, according to 2012 data from the Institute of International Education. Sixty percent of the roughly 3,200 students who studied abroad in that year did so in the summer.

It’s unclear how many American programs in Israel were cancelled or cut short early this summer due to the conflict with Hamas, nor how many American students booked early flights home. Schools are relying on private insurance and security companies to ensure their students’ safety.

To even participate in the MSU program, the eight students were required to purchase insurance from both HTH Worldwide, an international provider, and the Rothberg School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where the program is based. The HTH package MSU chose for its students included the outsourced services of a global risk consultant, Drum Cussac, based in the United Kingdom, which ultimately provided the university with the intelligence and evacuation recommendation.

For students traveling to countries with higher risks of social, political or environmental emergencies — like Israel, which holds a Department of State travel warning — universities prefer more comprehensive safety packages that include emergency evacuation insurance. In fact, since the 2011 unrest in Egypt that led to the evacuation of most programs and students, HTH has watched its security and political evacuation packages grow by “400% in our student market,” communications manager Moira Bishop wrote in an email.

“People are realizing the unexpected can happen at any moment,” said Carol Foley, HTH director of global health and safety.

George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, recently discovered as much, and ordered the evacuation of its summer program in Israel just hours after Israel launched its offensive against Hamas on July 8. GMU’s nine-week program is unique, with students, about half from other colleges, spread across six locations throughout Israel and the West Bank. Such decentralization may have left the university with little choice.

“There was no way to continue the program as-is safely,” said Yehuda Lukacs, associate provost and academic director of Israel-Palestine programming at GMU.

Though travel insurance covered all the extra fees incurred, many of the students didn’t want to go.

Other students, according to a July 8 email sent by Lukacs, were pressured to leave.

“If students do not leave immediately, they will not receive any credits for the program,” Lukacs wrote.

It was “either leave, or throw your ten grand down the toilet,” said David Prater, a graduate student on the program.

Prater is back home in Oregon now, where he attends Portland State University, and while he acknowledged GMU’s legitimate fears about student safety, he wondered how much of the university’s decision was based on liability concerns.

Sometimes universities have to think of more than safety when they consider whether to send students to Israel. The MSU program has run inconsistently since its creation in the late ’90s. The second intifada sparked the program’s first evacuation in 2000, and kept it suspended for the following five years as the Palestinian uprising continued. After Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders met during the 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh Summit to put an end to the violence, MSU reinstated the program for the summer of 2006, but quickly cut it short again after Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon began raining on northern Galilee.

Waltzer acknowledged that the 2006 decision had more to do with a concern over public perception than student safety. He noted that Jerusalem, where the students were primarily based, was considered far out of the range of Hezbollah’s rockets.

“The reason they pulled their students was because the [Jewish] Federation in Detroit had a teen group that it pulled from the north, and the university felt it couldn’t do any less than the federation,” Waltzer said.

Several summer abroad programs in Israel, like American University’s, finished in mid-June, before the conflict seriously escalated. Still, AU was prepared for the worst. The Washington, D.C.-based university contracted with iJET, a risk and intelligence agency.

“Some people only react when the flames are on them, and others see the flame coming and try to anticipate and mitigate risk to prevent an issue in the future,” said George Taylor, vice president of global operations at iJET.

Yardain Amron is a summer fellow at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @yardain

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