Students on the campus of the University of Haifa
January 2012 / Shvat 5772
A semester or year of study in Israel, has for years been one of the most effective ways for young adults to strengthen not only their attachments to Israel but also their commitments to Jewish life in their Diaspora communities. So when the California State University system refused to follow the lead of the University of California system and overturn a ban on study abroad programs to Israel, a team of Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel—posted at various Cal State campuses—led a successful pushback.
In 2004, during the second intifada, the State Department issued a travel warning to Israel. This triggered bans on Israel study programs at universities across the nation. But as the security situation improved, the warning was downgraded to an advisory in 2009. Subsequently, many American campuses resumed their affiliations with popular programs, such as those operated by Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University. But Cal State held out.
“Many hoped CSU would follow, but it retained its position that it would not reinstate its program as long as there was an advisory,” said Yochai Shavit, the Fellow at the Hillels of San Francisco, who spearheaded the protest effort along with Jewish Agency Israel Fellows Veronica Kuznetzova at Cal State- Northridge and Eli Ilan at San Diego State. “The focus shifted to CSU across the organized Jewish community.”
With a generous grant to Hillel from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund in 2010, the Let Our Students Go campaign kicked into high gear. This was not a campaign of noisy protests, but rather a strategic effort that included grassroots campus organizing tactics. There was a huge letter-writing campaign, led by the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel, a series of high-level meetings with California lawmakers, initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, and closed-door sessions between representatives of the Israeli Consulate and leaders of the Cal State system. On every level, though, the message was the same: Study in Israel is an essential learning experience for Jews and non-Jews; it is a priority of the Jewish community, and we will not let up.
According to Shavit, the involvement of students and faculty was critical. The Jewish community had tried to work with decision makers in the past. But until a groundswell of student and faculty voices demonstrated significant public interest in lifting the ban, the California legislature was unwilling to act. No longer able to ignore the community’s voices, it leaned on Cal State officials to form a research task force, visit the University of Haifa and eventually allow for study abroad to Israel to resume at Cal State.
“Despite [the university administration’s] security concerns, there was a distinct impression that if we were able to show a strong interest in this issue among Californians we could make it happen,” Shavit said. “Study abroad in Israel is an incomparable opportunity to pursue an education in an environment in which students are not distinguished because they are Jewish.
“Being Jewish is ingrained in the land and is implicit in everything that surrounds the students, even though the setting is not Jewishly programmed. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of Jewish identity at a level that can’t be replicated in America.”