Several U.S. colleges have decided to cancel their study abroad programs in Israel and evacuate students from the region, citing safety concerns as the conflict with Hamas continues.
While Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has protected much of Israel from attacks, spokesmen for several of the universities that evacuated students from the region said concerns about safety and warnings from the Obama administration fueled decisions to cancel programs in Israel.
Several of the universities reached for comment said they were influenced by State Department travel warnings and a highly controversial decision by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to temporarily suspend U.S. flights to Israel.
The FAA’s flight ban prompted outrage in Israel and accusations that it was politically driven by the Obama administration to pressure Israel to stop its campaign against Hamas terrorists.
All of the study abroad programs that were cancelled as a result of the administration’s warnings are now on an indefinite hold until calm returns to the region, according to spokesmen from several universities, including George Mason University, Michigan State, and Penn State.
"The trigger that caused our university to recommend an evacuation was the decision made by the FAA to suspend the flights of U.S. carriers in and out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv," said Gary Gilbert, an associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The FAA’s late July flight ban to Israel forced Claremont McKenna to quickly evacuate its students through Jordan and back to America, Gilbert said.
"The uncertainty over whether the students would be able to depart from Israel when scheduled—which was only a few days later—prompted the school and its insurance company to take the proactive measure and to evacuate the students through Amman, Jordan," he explained. "The evacuation went smoothly. We traveled from Akko in [northern] Israel to Amman, and all the students departed from there and returned home safely."
While students were flown out of the region in a somewhat dramatic fashion, Gilbert noted that those who were on the trip felt safe while they were in Israel.
"Throughout this past summer we felt safe both during our archaeological work on Tel Akko and in general in and around the city of Akko," Gilbert said, highlighting a common misperception about Israel and safety in the country, even during times of heightened conflict. "In addition, we have security measures on site should the need arise."
Claremont McKenna intends to continue its activities in Israel next summer, depending "on the situation at the time," Gilbert said.
Twenty-seven students and faculty members from Penn State University also were evacuated from Tel Akko, where they were working on an archeological dig with three other colleges.
Despite being far from the battle in Gaza, Penn State—like other universities—evacuated the students and faculty following the FAA flight ban.
"This site is well out of the way of any conflict and it was reported to be peaceful there," acknowledged university spokeswoman Lisa Powers. "The travelers were in no danger from the conflict."
Penn State also bussed students and faculty 150 miles to Jordan so that they could board planes back to the United States.
"This was a precautionary measure. As I said, these individuals were not near the reported conflict, but did want to travel home in a timely manner," Powers explained.
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, other colleges that aborted their Israel programs say that they are monitoring the situation to see if they can bring students back in the future.
"We don’t have any student study abroad programs in Israel until next summer, and will assess that as we get nearer to that time," said Tom Moore, a spokesman for the University of Iowa, which cancelled a faculty-led program in Israel due to what he called the "heightened conflict."
Israel-based programs also have been "indefinitely put on hold" at Michigan State University, which cancelled a four-week study abroad program in July just halfway through due to security concerns.
Students from Virginia’s George Mason University who were living near the West Bank—which is much closer to the conflict—also had their two-month program cut short.
"Given the uncertainty of the escalating situation at the time and a concern for providing appropriate oversight with students spread across six cities, we decided to cancel the program and sent the students home early," said Yehuda Lukacs, director of George Mason’s Center for Global Education.
"We have no additional trips scheduled for 2014 and we remain cautiously optimistic we will be able to continue our normal program options for students in 2015," Lukacs said.
Other colleges that cancelled programs in Israel include the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Trinity College in Hartford, and New York University.