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UConn Jewish students blast petition to cut travel abroad programs to Israel

Less than a month after Edina Oestreicher joined UConn Hillel as executive director, a petition intended for UConn President Thomas Katsouleas to “Cut and Defund UConn Study Abroad Programs to Israel” was started on change.org. 

The petition, drafted by UConn Students for Justice in Palestine, accused Israel of violating “basic Palestinian human rights” among other allegations. It references two study programs at Tel Aviv University, calling them “discriminatory as they bar many students from being able to go on these programs due to Israel’s policies.”

The petition refers to “Law of Entry No. 38 [sic]” which it says “actually bans entry of persons due to their political speech…”

In fact, the petition refers to is actually Amendment No. 28, which prohibits foreigners who publicly call for boycotting Israel to enter the country. The amendment’s defenders say it is necessary to defend Israel’s borders. 

The petition, seeking 1,000 signatures had garnered 797 and had not been presented to President Katsouleas at press time. 

But late last week, members of the Hillel student board and Husky Students for Israel decided to address the situation head on with a letter to the president’s office.

“This petition, publicized through social media accounts, demands that the administration cancel study abroad programs to Tel Aviv University in Israel,” say the students in the letter. “We found this to be very disturbing as the petition is actively calling for an academic boycott based on the author’s political opinions. We want to ensure that your office is aware of this initiative.  

“The history, political intricacies, and complex nature of this region deeply affect both the Israeli and Palestinian people. As a community these are issues that we are consistently grappling with, while finding ways to have nuanced discussions that allow us to think critically on the matter. However, these complexities should not by any means prohibit students from having access to the UConn study abroad programs in Israel. UConn has provided programs like these for years and allowed students the opportunities to immerse themselves in academic discourse on complex issues. As representatives of the Jewish community at UConn, we have a responsibility to ensure that UConn continues to provide these programs so that we, and future students, have the opportunity to live and learn in our ancestral homeland and to deepen a connection with our cultural and historical roots. 

“All UConn students seeking opportunities to explore a piece of the Middle East, or specifically looking to access these world-renowned programs  – for example, the Summer Brain and Behavior at Tel Aviv University led by UConn Professor Dr. Etan Marcus – should be able to. These programs are life-changing, and have served as steppingstones in many UConn students’ careers. 

“Israel is a nation bursting with innovation in the fields of medicine, water technology, entrepreneurship, negotiations, and so much more. We applaud UConn for providing our students with the access to these programs and impactful experiences.  As members of a Jewish community that promotes Tikkun Olam, the Jewish value urging us to repair the world around us, we commend any efforts by UConn students to use their voices to make positive change. While we respect the right of Students for Justice in Palestine to circulate this petition, it is our duty to ensure that these calls for action are not misguided by false narratives, creating more harm than good.”

“The letter was signed by Dori Jacobs (’22), president of UConn Hillel,; Gianna Michaelson (’22), president of HuskyPAC; and Hannah Farrell (’21), president of Huskies for Israel; who asked for a virtual meeting with President Katsouleas. 

On Tuesday, July 28, Katsouleas and Dan Weiner, UConn’s vice president of Global Affairs, met with the students to discuss the petition and the university’s position on study abroad in Israel.

Oestreicher said that the students “felt heard” at the meeting. 

“I was really quite impressed with how quickly the university responded to it…and how incredibly thoughtful the students were in addressing the petition to the institution,” she commented. “They need to know what their rights are and that they have a voice.”

While Katsouleas said he will not make a formal statement about the petition until it has been submitted to him, he told students in a letter last week, “We are very proud of our robust study abroad and research programs in Israel. … The goal of studying abroad and other UConn initiatives, like Global Affairs Abrahamic programs is to bring people together and help build a more peaceful and sustainable world. Boycotts and cancellations of study abroad programs are counterproductive and will only increase divisiveness and hostility.” 

Katsoleas added, “It is important for every member of the UConn community to accept and respect that others may see and experience the world in completely different ways. We will not tolerate racism, antisemitism, or hate speech on our campus, and are committed to ensuring that the university is a space for encounters and conversations in which everyone feels respected.”

Oestreicher agreed that hearing different voices is important on the college campus.

“I believe very strongly in the power of dialogue and how important it is for students to hear viewpoints that are different from their own, and to be engaged in conversation that is respectful and civil. But I also believe it is important for our community to know when the line crosses over into anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”

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