Across the country at hundreds of universities, college students are embarking on international study abroad opportunities. They are experiencing new cultures, practicing their foreign languages, trying new foods and broadening their horizons. Over the past few years, however, American students have encountered resistance from their university administrations over one destination in particular: Israel. Many students, including those at Yale, must take a leave of absence to study aboard in Israel. In these cases, students cannot not receive academic credit for or apply scholarships to study in Israel. Some are even told their scholarships will not be available for them upon their return.
University administration’s objections have one common factor: the U.S. Department of State travel warnings. The State Department has travel warnings for 26 countries. The list includes violence hot spots like Haiti, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Colombia, Libya, Bosnia, Iran, Lebanon, Algeria and Zimbabwe. Notably absent from this list are sites of recent terrorist activity in the past year, like Greece, Egypt and Spain.
This categorization of Israel has severely damaged Israel’s already weak economy. Before the violence broke out in late 2000, Israel averaged more than 2 million tourists per year (the equivalent, percentage-wise, of almost 100 million people visiting the United States every year). Israeli tourism peaked with 2,416,800 people in 2000. That year, Israel took in $3 billion from tourism. To put this in perspective, Israel receives about $4 billion in foreign aid from the United States. In addition, Israel’s tourism comprises almost 3 percent of Israel’s economy (all of the agriculture in the United States is only 1.5 percent of its economy).
In 2001, tourism fell more than 50 percent, and in 2002 fell to 35 percent of its 2000 level. Tourism is picking up slowly, and in 2004 Israel is expecting almost 1.5 million visitors, the largest number since 2000. However, this is still only 60 percent of its pre-2000 level.
Every year, Americans (and not just students) of different religions and ethnic and political backgrounds want to travel to Israel but often do not because of fear of terrorist attacks. Without diminishing the horror and brutality of terrorism, it is important to look at comparative statistics about how many people die in terrorist attacks each year in relation to more everyday fatalities for Americans. From 2001 to 2003, the number of people killed in Israel in traffic accidents (1,607) was almost double the number of people killed in terrorist attacks (870). Furthermore, the per capita number of traffic fatalities (1 in 12,000) is less than half of the number in the United States (1 in 5,000). The State Department does not appear to be advising Americans to not ride in cars.
In addition, the fence the Israeli army built between Israel and the Gaza Strip has virtually eliminated terrorist attacks coming from the Gaza Strip. The unfinished fence between Israel and the West Bank has already reduced terrorist attacks within Israel by 90 percent. Other ramifications of the fence notwithstanding, once it is completed, it will virtually eliminate terrorist attacks within Israel.
Regardless of statistics, Americans will still fear terrorism in Israel. However, terrorism can occur anywhere — in Spain, Greece, Japan, Ireland or even right here at home. Just three weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani said to the United Nations General Assembly: “We can’t let terrorists change the way we live — otherwise they will have succeeded … We need to reassert our right to live free from fear with greater confidence and determination than ever before … With one clear voice, unanimously, we need to say that we will not give in to terrorism.”
The time has come to move the safer part of Israel (excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip) off the travel warning list. The United States should continue to advise its citizens of the risk of traveling to Israel, as it does for every country from Egypt to France. However, it should stop telling Americans to defer travel to Israel. Israel is America’s strongest ally in the world today, and there is no better way to show this bond of friendship than by removing barriers for economic and travel cooperation between the two countries.
For too long, the State Department has allowed terrorism to change our lives. Removing the State Department’s travel warning for Israel would allow students to study abroad there and would continue to strengthen America’s ties with Israel.
David Gershkoff is a junior in Branford College.