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Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as Mideast Violence Leads U.S. Teachers, Students To Revise Travel Plans

Mideast Violence Leads U.S. Teachers, Students To Revise Travel Plans

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The escalating violence in the Middle East has prompted U.S. students and teachers to reconsider, postpone, and, in some cases, cancel their plans for education-related field trips and study tours to the region.

Officials of several programs are rethinking or have called off professional-development study tours for K-12 teachers to the Middle East as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has mounted. Several colleges also have recalled their students.

The U.S. Department of State, which recently urged American diplomats in the region to send their families back to the United States because of the "deteriorating security situation," issued a travel warning last week recommending that Americans defer travel to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories.

"Ongoing violence has caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including to some American tourists," the warning notes. "The potential for further terrorist acts remains high. The situation in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank remains extremely volatile with continuing terrorist attacks, confrontations, and clashes."

Cancellations and Recalls

School officials at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, in New Jersey, recently brought home a group of students who had been in Israel and have canceled plans to send other seniors to the region.

Late last fall, school administrators decided to go ahead and plan the popular trip even though the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and outside Washington had raised concerns about student safety.

"That had an effect on people's psychological readiness to send their kids overseas," said Elaine Cohen, the head of the private Jewish school, which serves grades pre-K-12. Fewer children were signed up to take the trip this year as a result of those concerns, she said. The school, which is located on three campuses in Cranston and West Orange, N.J., has been sending students to study in Israel for more than 10 years.

Sixteen seniors from the school traveled to a kibbutz near the town of Ashkelon on Feb. 25. They were scheduled to stay at the farming community for 14 weeks; eight more students were going to join them earlier this month.

But with the recent wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians and the Israeli military incursion into Palestinian-governed cities on the West Bank, school officials decided to bring the students home. "It was with great sadness," Ms. Cohen said, that the school made that decision at the end of March.

Even considering the increasing violence, some parents disagreed with the school officials' decision, Ms. Cohen said. "They have a very deep commitment to Israel as being the foundation of Jewish education," she said. "They wanted their kids there."

The school was not alone in its decision to bring students back from the region.

Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has canceled its study-abroad program in Egypt, the University of California system has pulled 27 students out of Israel, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has indefinitely suspended its study-abroad program in Jerusalem, bringing four students back to the United States.

Summer Trip in Doubt

Teachers have been affected, too. Officials of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin this month canceled a monthlong trip for teachers to Cairo after several days of riots against the United States and Israel shook the Egyptian capital.

At the end of March, and in early April, Cairo police used tear gas and armored vehicles to break up crowds assembled at Cairo University and outside the Israeli Embassy, according to news reports.

"We tried to see if something was changing for the better," said Abraham Marcus, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies and the director of the center. He said he was disappointed that he had to cancel the trip when the situation had not improved.

Meanwhile, the fate of a summer study tour for precollegiate teachers to Israel and Poland is uncertain because of the conflict.

Forty-four teachers from the United States participate in the four-week trip about the Holocaust each year. It is sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee, a New York City-based advocacy organization; the American Federation of Teachers; and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a New York City-based group that seeks to combat anti-Semitism.

This year, the teachers may not be able to travel. "We've never had to cancel before," said Charlotte Wollheim, the assistant to the program's director, though she added that program always has a contingency plan for security reasons.

For the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union students, the visit to Israel coincided with the explosion of a car bomb in Jerusalem that killed eight people.

The students and the teacher who accompanied them regularly wrote journal items for the school. One entry, dated March 4, captured the group's response to the car bombing.

"We all know we are safe here on the kibbutz," they wrote. "We know that at any inkling of danger we will be whisked out of harm's way. More than any other feeling, then, members of the group expressed frustration at what has been transpiring here recently. ... It seems like no matter what either side does, the violence continues."

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Pages 18-19

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