Rutgers reaffirms commitment to Israel after program closes

Rutgers reaffirms commitment to Israel after program closes

Barry Qualls

Rutgers University alumni in Israel are dismayed at the New Jersey state institution’s decision – just before the start of the spring semester – to cancel its study-abroad program in Israel for that semester due to circumstances related to the Gaza war.

In a letter to administrators, about 35 signatories argued that “simple common sense in avoiding areas of conflict and tension can provide for personal safety to nearly the same degree that it can be ensured in New Brunswick or New York,” and that the decision “sends a terrible message.” Eight students from the university and one from the University of Maryland were to participate in Rutgers’ spring study-abroad program at the University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, or Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One student decided to stay in the United States and two went to Australia instead. Six went to Israel as independent registrants.

Penina Mark of Wayne belongs to the latter group of students. “Rutgers’ cancellation of their program yields most of its effects at home,” she wrote to The Jewish Standard in an e-mail before her flight. “It made the decision to come to Israel more stressful, as well as requiring me to scramble before leaving to make sure everything was in order. When I return I will have to work with Rutgers to make sure that my credits will transfer since it is no longer a Rutgers program.”

In a letter to the nine students on Jan. 8, seven days after the start of Operation Cast Lead, Vice President for Undergraduate Education Dr. Barry Qualls explained that “instability in the Gaza area, now compounded by the missiles coming into northern Israel from Lebanon, indicate that the safety of our students cannot be reasonably assured. We have thus decided to close our programs in Israel for Spring 2009.”

Qualls told the Standard that a “crisis management team” including Gary Rendsberg, head of the Jewish studies department, took into account factors including a State Department advisory and a letter from Rutgers historian Ziva Galili, now in Israel, who had urged the university to cancel its program at Ben-Gurion University when missiles started striking Beersheva.

Qualls assured the affected students that if they chose to go to Israel independently, Rutgers would assist their registration, refund their tuition, allow them to use scholarship money for the trip, and facilitate transfer of credits earned. He told this newspaper he was dismayed that “paradoxically, … this has clearly not been seen as supporting their work in Israel,” judging by the protest e-mails he has received.

“Our decision about one semester of a program was only about security; our commitment to studying Jewish life, culture, and history, and to studying modern Israel should never be in doubt – never,” said Qualls. “Rutgers wants its students in Israel and in countries around the globe. We also want to have reasonable confidence that they will be safe when there.”

On Monday, Qualls and Rutgers President Richard McCormick met for two hours with officers of the Jewish Federation of MetroWest and Roy Tanzman, president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. Following the meeting, Qualls wrote to Tanzman that “our suspension of the program this semester was never meant to suggest that being in Israel in general was unsafe or that Rutgers intended its actions to be read as political. Our only concern was with the students.”

Rutgers took a similar action in 2000, during the Second Intifada, and reportedly received no protests. “We were naïve to use our experience in 2000 as a sign of how to do this,” Qualls said. “We are taking steps to ensure that in any future discussions of this issue, we talk to parents and students and community leaders before announcing an ‘official’ suspension.”

Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer expressed concern that because Rutgers has one of the largest Jewish populations of any university in the country, the move could set a precedent. In fact, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania had already canceled their study-abroad programs in Israel earlier in January. This week, the University of North Carolina and Occidental University followed suit.

Jeremy Wimpfheimer and Ezra Gilbert, two Rutgers alumni and Teaneck natives now living in Israel, spearheaded the idea to write to Rutgers administrators on Jan. 22. They have begun a Facebook group for Rutgers alumni in Israel that has about 40 members. “Regardless of whether Rutgers changes their decision, we can feel satisfied that we got organized and sent a response,” Gilbert said.

JTA contributed to this report.

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