Students traveling to Israel face dilemma
Following the recent escalation between Israel and Gaza and the agreement to implement a ceasefire on Nov. 21, there have been no changes for students who are currently in Israel or planning to travel there through either study abroad programs or Taglit-Birthright Israel.
The Office of Study Abroad has been working to contact and support students and the families of students currently studying abroad in Israel, wrote Director of Study Abroad J. Scott Van Der Meid in an email to the Justice. Van Der Meid explained that the Brandeis University/Middlebury Program in Israel has not been, and will not be, suspended, and that so far, no students have withdrawn from the spring 2013 semester program. Two students are currently studying abroad in Israel, and 14 plan to study abroad next semester.
"None of the students asked to return home. We have been talking with several students about their options for next semester should they no longer wish to go to Israel in the spring," wrote Van Der Meid. "Some students might switch to a different program; others are going to wait and see what comes this spring and others might consider deferring until the fall 2013 semester."
The Office of Study Abroad has been working with the programs, study abroad organizations and local authorities to ensure the safety of students studying abroad, said Van Der Meid.
Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are run through the University's chapter of Hillel during the winter annually. This year's trip will depart on Dec. 26, but with the uncertainty surrounding how effective the current ceasefire will remain, some concerns have been expressed by students and the families of students who are planning to go to Israel.
According to Hillel Coordinator for Israel Engagement Eli Cohn, out of the 27 students currently registered to participate in this winter's Birthright trip, none of the students have withdrawn due to security concerns at this point.
Allyson Eller '15 still plans to go on Birthright this winter with the University, but is unsure of whether or not she will go should the ceasefire fail.
"My thoughts didn't change. ... I felt like the situation in Israel escalates cyclically, so there is always a chance of something happening," wrote Eller in an email to the Justice.
According to Eller, her family expressed concerns, and her mother's thoughts on the trip changed after the situation in Israel intensified.
"My mom said that a lot of my family members called her and asked her if I was still going, if the trip was still on, things like that," wrote Eller. "We talked and decided that as long as the ceasefire holds, I can go, because it's just as safe as any other time since there's always the threat the situation will escalate again."
Should a student feel uncomfortable with his or her trip due to safety reasons, the deposit required at the time of registration can be returned to that student, according to Cohn.
"We counsel all of our students that Birthright is not a program that is going anywhere, nor is Israel a country that's going anywhere, and if this isn't the right time for you to go, then that's a choice that's between you and your family, and certainly not something that we're going to hold against you in any way," said Cohn.
According to Cohn, Birthright takes several safety precautions regardless of the circumstances in Israel, including keeping phones containing Global Positioning Systems on all buses to track their locations at all times, and ensuring that no student leaves the group at any time. Safety is also confirmed consistently with the Situation Room in Israel throughout the trip.
In addition, there are certain areas that are off-limits regardless of the current situation, such as East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. Therefore, the chance that the schedule of the trip will be affected by escalation is unlikely, according to Cohn.
"I'm very hopeful that the ceasefire will hold up, and I think it will, practically. Honestly, I don't think it would've affected our itinerary all that much anyways," said Cohn.
Despite the escalation and questions regarding the ceasefire, Cohn believes that the trip will be just as safe as any other time. Birthright began in 1999, and continued to operate through the Intifada in the early 2000s, the second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza War in 2009. According to Cohn, all of these events occurred without harm to Birthright participants.
"Brandeis and the Office of Study Abroad is not in the business to promise any given location, including Waltham, is safe," wrote Van Der Meid in his email. "Instead we see our role to work with reputable overseas partners and work together to inform our students and their families with as much information as possible about any situation on the ground."