It’s a hot summer afternoon in the middle of July. Students are milling about campus on their way to and from summer classes. Some look tired, trudging home after a long day while others are smiling as they take in a breath of fresh air. A small group is holding an impromptu study session beneath a tree in the courtyard. It’s just like any other college campus. Except it’s in Israel. And there is a war. [walk]
The campus is Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest and arguably holiest city. This past summer, eight MSU students participated in what was supposed to be a five-week study abroad program centered at the university. Their trip was interrupted, however, on July 12 when the militant Shia Islamist Lebanese political party Hezbollah fired rockets known as Katyushas across Israel’s northern border. The group simultaneously killed eight Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and kidnapped two more, sparking a war between the two countries, which lasted 34 days before a shaky cease-fire was negotiated by the United Nations.
One of the students who participated in the program, psychology sophomore Lisa Buch, found being amidst such turmoil to be an invaluable experience. “I hate when people say, ‘oh it’s a war zone life.\’ It’s not,\” Buch said. \”It’s a life-changing experience.\”
Journalism and political science junior Ryan Secord had originally planned on going to Israel this past summer but had to back out for personal reasons. “I wish to God I had gone,” he said. “There is no better way to study democracy than in turmoil [and] to be able to study democracy in its darkest hour would have truly been an experience. Being there you wouldn’t get the watered down version of Fox News, you’d get to hear it straight from the Israeli government.”
Secord was not the only one to point out differences between cultural interpretations of war. “We [Americans] live in a really safe nation,\” Buch said. \”We live in a safe area and people live here and make big deals out of little things and then they go there [to Israel] and see what’s going on, and they see people who have best friends or family members dying in the army. There are better things to worry about. I think it’s really humbling that Americans get to go.”
Program director and Jewish studies professor Ken Waltzer also noticed the difference between Israelis and Americans. “It is very hard to convince Americans who watch CNN and hear the news that things are okay,” he said. “On the day of the July 12 attacks, we were at the beach. We were sitting on the beach in the sun watching surfers in the water. Americans have difficulty understanding and appreciating that things coexist; something can happen in one place and be different in another.”
Secord supported Waltzer’s perspective. He said Americans are more \”skittish” about such intense fighting. “Not because we are Americans, but because of the way the media has made us,\” Secord said. \”The difference is in the politics we play. When someone attacks Israel, or say, kidnaps two of their soldiers, they go and bomb the shit out of them. In America, we get scared and invent skittle systems – newscasters pull a color out of a hat to tell us how safe we are. It’s the media that puts that fear into us [and] it’s become a natural, integral part of our society.”
Buch admits that while she now agrees and speaks of the incident nonchalantly, the initial news of the attacks was disconcerting. “We heard about it by word-of-mouth [and] until you know what’s going on, you’re a little apprehensive,” she said. “I heard ‘rockets that go this far’ or ‘that far’ and you don’t know what a plausible source is.”
Her fears were quelled, however, when she spoke to some native Israelis and discovered that such hostile incidents are somewhat commonplace in Israel. “I talked to some of my native friends to see what they thought,” Buch said. “They were pretty optimistic. They said, ‘Oh, this isn’t a big deal, [Hezbollah] won’t do anything. This will end; this kind of thing happens a lot. You have nothing to worry about.’ If it weren’t for the natives, I probably wouldn’t have understood the situation as I did. I wasn’t panicking without regard like some people, unjustly. My biggest worry was that something else would happen and we would have to go home.” [bigride]
And it did. Contrary to what Buch’s friends had predicted, the fighting didn’t wane, but rather intensified. Israel struck back at Hezbollah by bombing key bridges, airport runways and cities, most notably Beruit, a city once referred to as the “Paris of Lebanon” and is now an enormous pile of rubble. They demolished buildings, residential areas and inflicted hundreds of casualties. Hezbollah responded by shelling Israel with hundreds of Katyushas, similarly ruining buildings and killing dozens of Israelis, thus prompting Israel to strengthen their air raid even more. The response was so fierce and out of character for the, as of late, conflict-averse country that it surprised Israelis, Americans and Hezbollah alike. Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Kassem, in a statement on Aug. 26, expressed Hezbollah’s astonishment at the force and duration of the Israeli response.
The sudden turn of events in the Middle East did send Americans both visiting in Israel and at home into a tailspin, and as conditions worsened and parents became increasingly worried, students of the study abroad program began to consider the possibility of going home early. “One by one people started to drop out,” said Buch. “When one person goes home, others begin to question [if they should go home too]. But before we could make the decision ourselves MSU made it for us. They canceled the trip.”
Waltzer felt the cancellation was unnecessary but well thought out. “We felt safe when the program was canceled. We were in no danger at all. I advised the MSU administration that I thought we were safe, but they thought we had the best chance to leave then. They were concerned it would get worse and [the students] would not be able to get out. There was also the consideration that the Jewish Federation had brought their summer Teen Mission home,” Waltzer said, speaking of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, which sends approximately 200 high school students, grades 10-12, to Israel for a month every summer. “It was really contextual to our pulling out. If the Detroit Federation is pulling out, how could MSU not pull out?” he said. “[But] I think it was a very prudential, cautious and thoughtful decision.”
The MSU Study Abroad Security and Risk Assessment Committee and Incident Command Team, along with Provost Kim Wilcox, ultimately made the final decision to cancel the remainder of the program.
MSU students like Secrod saw logic in the decision. “If something were to happen to the students, it obviously would have been a liability,” Secrod said. “Funding for the program could have been shut down; other study abroad programs could have been shut down. Students might not have been able to go back to Israel for years.”
English senior Lisa Dillivan can imagine even more dire circumstances. “I think it was done not only for the safety of the students, but also to prevent any possible international incidents that could arise from students being injured or killed in war,\” she said.
While the students and faculty of the study abroad program contest their safety in the center of country, residents living in Northern cities in Israel such as Haifa and Nahariya could not say the same. “What was difficult,” said Waltzer, who remained in Israel an additional week after the program was canceled, “was when people started coming down from the North. Their homes and family had been lost. They were coming down and telling their stories and so many had nowhere to go. My rental agency asked me when I was leaving – he wanted me to go so refugees could stay there.” An estimated 300,000 Israelis are now displaced due to the damages inflicted by Hezbollah’s shelling and 157 are left dead, significant figures even compared to the estimated 750,000 displaced persons and 1,000 dead in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah continues to be a real security problem for Israel,” continued Waltzer. “You can’t live in a place where you have rockets trained on you and by a people with no regard for human life.”
Dillivan agreed. “It’s not over,” she said. “There’s too much hostility on both sides. But hopefully the ceasefire will give them an opportunity to figure out how to resolve their conflicts in a nonviolent way.”
The ceasefire, for the most part, has been upheld to save from a few skirmishes, and at the present time international troops are slowly being sent to the Middle East to mediate the border between Israel and Lebanon. In the meantime, Israeli troops remain in southern Lebanon.
Despite potential danger and the program’s cancellation, Waltzer insists it is not the end of the Israeli study abroad program. “We will be going back. MSU made a statement; it remains committed to the program,” he said. The MSU Risk Assessment Committee will review the situation in the fall to determine if and when the students can return to the country. Waltzer is confident the results will be favorable saying, “There will be students in Israel in the summer of 2007.”
To Buch the news is very good. “I think about Israel all the time,” she said. “It’s everything I do. I think about being happy where I am now but it’s hard because I can’t wait to go back.”

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