Cal State University’s Israel program under attack again

Jewish groups are weighing their response to a recent attack on Cal State University’s decision to reinstate its study abroad program in Israel — an attack some Jewish leaders consider “outrageous” and politically motivated.

CSU cancelled its Israel study option in 2002, mainly due to security concerns and a State Department warning on travel to Israel. This past May, after a year of concerted effort by the Jewish Community Relations Council and other Jewish groups, CSU decided to reinstate the program beginning with the 2012-13 academic year.

Two weeks ago, an open letter was sent to CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed asking him to reverse the decision. The letter, signed by 70 CSU faculty members and many current and former students, states that American students face grave bodily harm in Israel, including the possibility that they will be shot and killed by Israeli military forces.

The letter calls Israel an “apartheid” regime, and says Palestinian students from CSU wishing to take part in the program would face discrimination or worse.

Finally, the letter suggests that CSU’s Israel study program, run in cooperation with universities in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, is “one-sided” unless similar programs are created with Palestinian universities.

“The letter made outrageous charges that could not go unaddressed,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, which is coming up with a response strategy together with the Anti-Defamation League, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the S.F.-based Israeli consulate, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California and the state’s Hillel chapters.

Noting that the bulk of the signatories are faculty at CSU Northridge, Kahn said he believes the letter is “the effort of a very small group of individuals who do not have the best interests of higher education or the CSU system at heart.”

Yochai Shavit, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at San Francisco Hillel, noted that “a few, or no students” from CSU are currently studying in Israel, because until the formal program is reinstated, they have to essentially drop out of school, arrange their study themselves and then hope to get credit for their studies abroad when they re-enroll at CSU.

“We appreciate the chancellor and board of trustees’ decision to re-instate the study abroad program for the CSU system,” he said. “We look forward to embarking on a coordinated campaign to encourage CSU students to take advantage of studying in Israel and understand the opportunities they have to choose from.”

A spokesman from CSU’s Public Affairs department confirmed receipt of the letter and was not aware of any formal response yet. But, he said, CSU’s Israel programs “are currently being evaluated for security,” indicating that plans are moving forward. Flyers advertising the programs, and encouraging students to apply, appear on the CSU website.

“The interest level is high and will surely increase when the program is reinstated,” said Shavit.

The University of California system reinstated its Israel study program in December 2008, and it became active in the fall of 2009.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.