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Violence in Israel disrupts study-abroad plans for American students

Passengers wait at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 7, 2023, as flights are canceled because of the Hamas surprise attack.GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

For Americans studying in Israel, the outbreak of war and sudden disruptions in commercial flights to and from Tel Aviv in recent days have raised questions about whether, when and how to evacuate.

Eighteen New York University undergraduates managed to leave Tel Aviv over the weekend, flying to Dubai. Their trip had been scheduled before Hamas launched attacks from Gaza, NYU said, but the violence delayed and scrambled flight plans.

University officials tracked the logistics hour by hour and were relieved when the students were en route late Sunday to the United Arab Emirates. NYU has a campus there in the Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi.

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"We let the parents know when the flight took off," said Josh Taylor, NYU's vice president of global outreach and mobility, "and we let the parents know when it landed." Officials said it's not yet clear when NYU's operations in Tel Aviv will resume a normal schedule.

In a typical year, thousands of U.S. college students come to Israel for study-abroad programs overseen by U.S. schools or attached to Israeli institutions. The Institute of International Education counted about 3,500 U.S. college students in Israel in 2018-19. Far fewer U.S. students were there after the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020, but their numbers lately have rebounded.

Now the situation is fluid, as Israel has declared war on Hamas following attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis.

Some airlines are curtailing service at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport. In addition, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem have announced that they are pushing back the start of their semesters a week, until Oct. 22.

"Universities are all putting the student safety concerns above everything else," said Allan E. Goodman, chief executive of the Institute of International Education.

From the United States, colleges and universities - and parents - are touching base with students and monitoring the situation. Goodman said it is likely that evacuation planning has arisen in those discussions.

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Often, he said, students living in countries where a crisis emerges feel torn because they want to stay put, in solidarity with the people there. But many will conclude, Goodman said, that they need to leave because "they don't want to be an extra burden on the society."

Brigham Young University is closely tracking a significant academic enterprise in Israel. The BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies is located on Mount Scopus, overlooking the historic Old City of Jerusalem.

On Saturday, the center posted a security update on its website that said 93 students were living there and that an off-campus field trip had been canceled. The center said academic instruction would continue as scheduled. There will be some "challenges . . . with travel outside of the Center," the update said. "These will be evaluated as the conflict unfolds."

On Monday, the center said it held a "full briefing" with students, faculty and spouses that discussed, among other things, "academic plans for the coming weeks."

BYU officials in Utah declined to comment further.

Georgetown University in Washington said it has reached out to a handful of its undergraduate and graduate students who are studying in Israel or planning to do so this semester. "Our students in Israel have been advised to minimize movement and follow all local directives and register with their home country's embassy," Georgetown said in a statement.

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On Tuesday, Nina Shelanski, 23, a University of Colorado student who has been living in Tel Aviv while taking classes remotely, went to the airport with plans to fly to Athens. A dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, she plans to stay in Europe temporarily. "My parents want me to be safe so they want me to leave at least until the situation stabilizes," she wrote in a text. "I plan to come back as soon as I think it's reasonable to do so."

Some are staying put.

At the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, on a kibbutz in southern Israel near Eilat, officials say the situation is secure.

Will Belluche, 20, a junior at American University who is studying at Arava, said he was in touch with family in Vermont soon after the Hamas attacks. He plans to stay through the end of the semester. "Texted my parents that stuff is going down here, just to let them know I'm OK," he said Tuesday in a Zoom interview. "We talked later. They're definitely worried about my safety. I let them know I feel safe, and we're away from the conflict zone."

Sophie Newmark, 20, a Carleton College student who is also at Arava, said the same. “I’ve heard from various family members - mostly, ‘I hope you’re okay,’ that kind of thing,” Newmark said. “My mom asked for more detailed updates about what’s going on.” Newmark, who is from Austin, said news of the attacks took an emotional toll. She and her peers at Arava are limiting their travel. “I wouldn’t want to go very far off the kibbutz right now,” Newmark said.

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