Student Senate urges Israel study abroad return

By Dan Petrella

The Illinois Student Senate passed a resolution Wednesday urging the University to reinstate study abroad programs to Israel.

University policy currently prohibits study abroad in any country for which the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning. Israel is currently under a travel warning, along with 25 other countries.

Approximately 100 members of the public filled the Pine Lounge in the Illini Union for the 7 p.m. meeting. Many came to speak either in support of the resolution or in opposition to it.

Those who spoke in favor of the resolution noted that other prestigious universities in the U.S. have reinstated their study abroad programs to Israel and that there is obvious student support for the University to do the same. The Illinois Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as IlliniPAC, has collected approximately 700 signatures on a petition asking if students feel study abroad to Israel should be allowed.

“You don’t have to agree with Israel’s policies, but students have the right to academic freedom and to decide in which environment they learn best,” said Eli Wald, junior in LAS and president of IlliniPAC.

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During the public comments, Wald explained that currently, if a student wishes to study in Israel, they must withdraw from the University and apply to an Israeli university. They must then reapply if they wish to return to the University, and they often face difficulty getting credit for the classes they have taken in Israel.

Those who opposed the resolution discussed the dangers present in Israel, noting a suicide bombing that took place earlier this week, and said that they felt allowing students to study abroad in Israel is too great a liability for the University to take. They said that the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings are the best criteria by which to judge the safety of a country, and that the Department is more capable of making those judgments than a committee of students or even the Study Abroad Office.

A few speakers also noted that the opportunities for students of Arabic or Palestinian descent to study in Israel would be very limited by the Israeli government.

Following time-limited discussion by the Student Senate, the resolution passed by a vote of 10 to six, with four student senators abstaining.

“Having recently traveled to Israel and being fully aware of the inherent dangers that exist by traveling to Israel, I would still feel safe studying there,” said Student Senator Steven Benario, sophomore in Engineering, who wrote the resolution.

“No one is trying to say that Israel is a completely safe place to be, but that is a risk that students who study abroad must be willing to take, no matter what their destination,” Benario said. “There are plenty of other places to which study abroad is allowed which could also be considered dangerous. I simply feel that students should have the option to study where they want.”

If the University reinstates study abroad to Israel, it will set a precedent for other countries under travel warning, Benario said.

He explained that Israel was chosen because of student interest and because a previous study abroad program existed there. Because of these factors, it was believed that Israel would be the country on the list most likely to be approved by the University administration.

Student Senator Joseph Danavi, senior in LAS and a main opponent to the resolution, disagreed.

“ISS has just approved an exclusive resolution including one country – Israel,” he said. “We have overstepped our political boundary by endorsing a state that is full of controversy.”

Danavi said he feels it is improper for the Student Senate to get involved in such highly politicized issues.

“Just like we don’t take a stance on the Chief, we shouldn’t take a stance on Israel, even related to study abroad,” he said.

Student Senate Vice President Humair Sabir, senior in Business, said he felt that Wednesday’s meeting was one of the most productive the group has had. He said he felt there was good debate, despite the fact that many people in attendance were unhappy with the outcome of the vote.

“A lot of people showed their opinion,” Sabir said. “I think this shows the strength of the Student Senate as a whole.”