Stopping Study Abroad in Israel Encourages Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hate
Supporting Israel has rapidly become a controversial position on college campuses. As the BDS movement and organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine grow in size and social cache, students face overwhelming pressure to adopt viewpoints that demonize and delegitimize Israel. Far too often, legitimate critiques of the Israeli government veer into antisemitic attacks.
But in some ways, this isn’t really students’ fault. Israel is a small country more than 7,000 miles away, with a population of only about 9 million. It’s understandable that many American students wouldn’t have connections to the country and its people — or understand the true history and situation in the region. But this poses a significant challenge. When students lack first-hand exposure to Israel, its vibrant economy, and its diverse peoples, they also lack the context and lived experience needed to fully understand anti-Israel attacks and parse fact from fiction — or good faith criticism from antisemitism.
Study abroad programs are important, because they help narrow this gap. These programs allow students to travel to Israel and form well-reasoned opinions and views about the country that are grounded not in activist’ rhetoric, but in their own personal experiences.
Unfortunately, study abroad programs are increasingly coming under attack and strain. And the logistics of international travel during the pandemic have placed significant burdens on universities, many of which have begun to scale back and suspend study abroad programs altogether. For a while, third-party providers have helped bridge this gap. Organizations like Masa Israel Journey, for example, facilitated immersive study abroad experiences for students, allowing them to work and study in Israel for extended periods of time.
However, many university administrations have begun removing third-party providers from their study abroad programs. These shortsighted policies limit students’ ability to study abroad in Israel, further disassociating them from the reality of life in Israel and deepening the antisemitic narratives that have taken hold on campuses across the country.
As universities with affiliated campuses overseas end their international third-party relationships in favor of satellite campuses, students are being deprived of a truly immersive cultural experience. Beyond offering more slots for students to study abroad, third-party providers also offer diverse programs to meet varied needs and objectives, and typically provide a more curated, well-rounded experience. Participants in my organization’s programs, for example, enjoy seminars and social events that introduce them to the language, the people, and the land of Israel. Many even broker opportunities for students to intern and work in Israel’s start-up sector.
Most importantly, third-party study abroad programs give students the context they need to understand Israel’s role in the world. They encourage students to interact with everyday Israelis, study at Israeli universities, and work at Israeli companies. For them, Israelis become people with real hopes and concerns — not just statistics or bogeymen. And these new perspectives can help combat the notorious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish atmosphere that pervades American universities.
The AMCHA Initiative has documented 386 anti-Israel campus incidents in 2021 alone, and more than 4,000 since 2015. Recently released FBI crime data showed that antisemitic hate crimes comprised almost 60% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the US. Just this summer, swastikas were found drawn on a building at Emory University, and a group of Jewish students at Syracuse University was pelted with eggs and called antisemitic slurs. In 2018, the University of Michigan made headlines when a professor refused to write a recommendation letter for a student to study abroad in Israel. In the months since the Israel-Hamas conflict in May, 60 percent of American Jews said they have personally witnessed antisemitism.
Antisemitism will become more prominent if students are deprived of the opportunity to study in Israel. Studying abroad in Israel is one tool that invites students to question and interrogate the anti-Zionist slogans they hear on the quad, and encourages them to research the subject and come to their own conclusions.
In many ways, that is the central focus of the university — to inspire students to grow as thinkers and to equip them with the tools they need to make informed, rational judgments about the world. Study abroad programs are integral to this mission. Cutting ties with third party providers is not only short-sighted and misguided, but also profoundly contradictory to the ideal all universities should strive to achieve.
Meara Razon Ashtivker is the NA COO of Masa Israel Journey and lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children.