After almost a decade of being suspended, the Office of International Programs has opened up the opportunity to study in Israel despite recent violence in the Gaza Strip. The current semester was the first time the program has allowed students to apply to the University of Haifa in Israel for study abroad.
While no students from SF State are currently studying abroad in Israel, some are eager to sign up for the chance to do so.
“To be able to have our students go to one of the major Israeli universities is a fantastic thing, and the fact that this is opened up now for spring is great news. So we are happy to see this go forward,” Fred Astren, Jewish Studies department chair, said.
The California State University system had suspended the program in 2002 due to safety concerns issued by the U.S. State Department. The safety concerns have been lifted as of now, but travel warnings in Israel have stayed in place.
Chancellor Charles B. Reed compiled a review of the benefits and risks of opening the program in Israel in 2011, according to David Wick, assistant director of the OIP. Reed concluded that the academic opportunities outweighed the risk factors and agreed to allow students to study there.
“It was a strategic move because of the location of the university in Haifa. It is a city that is influenced by both sides — Israelis and Palestinians — and there is really a blended culture,” Wick said. “It’s like the San Francisco of Israel.”
Wick explained that security issues are always being watched and that the safety of students remains a top priority.
The escalating tension and violence in Israel is very real to students in the General Union of Palestinian Students, an on-campus organization whose goal is to build social awareness of the Palestinian struggle. Abdula Harara, civil engineering major and treasurer of the organization, explained that living in the U.S. doesn’t separate him from the violence in Israel.
“My family is from Gaza; 30 of my family members have been injured and five of them have died due to the air strikes,” Harara, 20, said.
Benjamin Meis, 19, a psychology major, plans to apply for the study abroad program in Haifa. After going on his birthright trip, a free program that allows Jewish people to spend 10 days in Israel during the summer, he has no concerns about his wellbeing.
“It’s actually much safer than the media makes it out to be,” the sophomore said.
Astren believes that studying abroad in Israel, especially at a top university like Haifa, is an amazing opportunity for students of all racial and religious backgrounds.
“People within the Jewish community and the broader community often discuss how safe it is to go to Israel. There a lot of concern about that, especially when it makes the news, like it has recently. But in general the statistical risk you take getting on the freeway every morning is greater than the risk of something happening to you when you are in Israel. The University of Haifa is not near any border or any areas that is contested or has a long history of trouble,” he said, getting up from his desk and pointing to Haifa’s location on a map hanging on his wall that is vastly different in appearance to the one GUPS uses, which has no mention of Israel.
Although the program is open to all students, members of GUPS said that the opportunity is not available for Palestinian-born students.
Zachariah Rabah, co-president of GUPS and international relations major, was born in the West Bank of Israel and faces this exact obstacle.
“I am an American, but because I am also Palestinian that trumps my American citizenship,” Rabah said. “I would love to go and I would hope that our school or our program would reach out to Palestinian universities.”
Rabah explained that those who are born in certain areas of Israel, such as the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, are barred from attending Israeli universities. Those who are Palestinian but are born outside these areas can identify as Israeli Arabs and gain access to certain universities.
“Host countries always have the opportunity to approve and deny someone a visa to their country, but we are willing to work with students and make sure we can address any concerns they might have,” Wick said. “If a student expresses these concerns, I can pick up the phone and call the consulate. Also there have been several advocacy groups who are willing to support them.”
More students are still planning to apply. Cherish Hope, 27, agrees on the importance of this opportunity and plans to apply for the program.
“I believe that Israel among all nations are rich with culture and perspective that is unique and unifying at the same time. To experience this firsthand through academia is a treat and an opportunity that should be exercised,” the junior anthropology major said.
Sarah Guthrie, recent graduate and online specialist for the University’s study abroad program explained that although the program has opened up this opportunity, students did not sign up last year and signups for this year have been lacking.
“We show the program to all students and let them see the opportunities they have but because of the political situation going on in Israel, advisers recommend having a backup choice,” Guthrie said.
Wick is confident in the safety of the SF State students studying abroad and believes in the program.
“This campus is committed to equity and social justice, what I hope is that students here at State can contribute to a better world in the U.S. and abroad,” Wick said.
Story by Matt Saincome and Ellie Loarca
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Fred Astren’s name, Jewish Studies department chair. The University of Haifa was also misspelled in a quote attributed to Astren. We regret the errors.