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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Israel-Gaza conflict and study abroad: Middle East violence causes safety concerns

“Study abroad is a great way to regain a sense of the world outside of this campus,” reads one student’s testimony on the website of UW-Madison’s Study Abroad Office.

For those studying abroad in Israel this semester during the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari and the ensuing week of rocket exchanges between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli Defense Forces from Nov. 14 to 21, the experience in a society both at war and under siege was less out of a brochure in the Red Gym than a front page of the New York Times.

Rockets have flown back and forth between Gaza and southern Israel since 2001, but have never threatened the populations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel’s first and third largest cities, as they did this November. As tens of thousands of the Israeli armies’ called-up reserves gathered at the Gaza border, the memory of 2008’s three-week invasion of Gaza loomed large.

It was under this backdrop that New York University suspended its Tel Aviv program, evacuating all students and academic staff to London on Sunday, Nov. 18.

“We did not think our students and personnel were in proximate or imminent

danger.  We wanted to avoid a situation where the students would get [to] the

end of the semester and have difficulties returning home,” NYU’s Vice-President for Public Affairs John Beckman said in an email to the Daily Cardinal. “Given that consideration, the high priority we always place on student safety…we thought this was the prudent course.”

UW-Madison’s safety policies for students studying abroad are largely determined by the advice and travel advisories of Cultural Insurance Services International, which provides insurance to study abroad students, and the U.S. State Department, according to UW-Madison Communications spokesperson John Lucas.

The two UW-Madison students in Israel this semester are studying in the northern city of Haifa, effectively putting them out of harm’s way, Lucas said, adding that the university was in “frequent” contact with them via phone and email.

“[Student’s safety] is something that we’re always monitoring from Madison…whether it’s a larger situation like the Arab Spring, or a regional disturbance like the Japanese earthquake” Lucas said.

On the campus of Haifa University, UW-Madison junior Jake Beckert witnessed protests for and against Israel’s offensive, not unlike the one on Library Mall November 17.

“It wasn’t much different then you would see in any protest movement in the states, and certainly less than the union…protests we had in Madison my freshmen year,” Beckert said in an online message.

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But some of Beckert’s roommates were called up for duty, and were gone when he returned from class. And after a bomb detonated on a public bus in Tel Aviv on Nov. 21, the day of the ceasefire, he found himself riding one on his trip to a school where he volunteers as an English teacher.

“When a passenger on the bus set a huge sports bag down on a seat without sitting down, I couldn’t help but be a little nervous,” he said. “I could tell I was not the only person on the bus watching him, and I felt a little silly for it, but I couldn’t help it. He…just got off at a stop and probably went to work out.” 

UW-Madison junior Ilana Baumwald spent the summer filling out her application to study in Jerusalem in the spring. She began rethinking her decision when the rockets began targeting the cities, eventually deciding she would stick with Israel when she received an email—and a choice— from her International Academic Programs advisor on Monday, November 19.

With the subject line “Israel update,” the email revealed that other students had contacted the office about switching their programs to “avoid the situation in Israel all together,” and provided a list of programs still available for any other students reconsidering their plans.

Rome caught her eye, but because she would have to completely withdraw from the Israel program in order to apply, she realized the conflict she was reading about in the news, and the apprehension she felt, was, in a way, part of the experience.

“I realized that it’s always a possibility when you choose to go to Israel, and I’ve learned to accept that,” Baumwald said. “Some things always happen…[the] university wouldn’t send us to Israel if they thought it was unsafe.”

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