Jerusalem program canceled due to Middle East violence
By KATE NAGENGAST
Assistant News Editor
Notre Dame's study abroad program in Jerusalem, Israel — renowned for its involvement with both Israeli and Palestinian culture — has been cancelled this spring due to heightened violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Located at the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies at Tantur, on a hilltop road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the program typically accommodated about 15 students from Notre Dame and offered five to six courses per semester at three local institutions: Hebrew University, Bethlehem University and the Ratisbonne Institute. However, a committee of both students and faculty who have a solid understanding of the current situation in Israel, announced its cancellation today.
"We keep returning to the dilemma: if we would have to sequester the students in Tantur, our program of wide-ranging access to both cultures and all three religions would be severely curtailed," said Father David Burrell, director of the Jerusalem program, in a letter that described the reasons for the program's cancellation to prospective attendees.
Students who planned to participate in the Jerusalem program were offered two alternatives: participation in another Mediterranean program in Athens, Greece this spring, and inclusion in the applicant pool for spring 2002 in Jerusalem.
"It's just too unpredictable at this time," said Megan Sweeney, a senior in the College of Science who participated in the Jerusalem program last spring. "The tension is so high that even if there wasn't physical violence it wouldn't be a good place to be."
Susan Sheridan, on leave from her position as a professor in Notre Dame's anthropology department, has been conducting research in Jerusalem for the past six years, and living there as the annual professor at the WF Albright Institute of Archaeological Research since May. She was also a strong supporter of the program's cancellation this spring.
"This is a very stressful situation, and I feared for both the physical and emotional safety of the students," said Sheridan. "My concern was that the learning experiences gained by this excellent program would be overwhelmed by the pain, turmoil, and at times, terror that the current situation brings."
"The program is really secondary to what goes on over there in general. It's a shame that the students can't go, but it's a much bigger shame for the people of the country. The emphasis shouldn't be on the Notre Dame students, but the people actually living in Israel and their fears," Sweeney said.
Nathaniel Marx, a 2000 Notre Dame graduate who studied at Tantur during the spring of 1999, has understood those fears first-hand since moving to Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank just North of Jerusalem. Marx returned to Israel in August to work as a public relations and program development volunteer with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.
"Tantur is a very safe place and what little violence there has been over the past few years has been localized in very predictable places, but sadly I feel the situation is becoming much less predictable," said Marx. "Israeli tanks and helicopters [surround] Palestinian towns, ready to bombard civilians who have become frustrated with a peace process that has brought nothing but more settlements, more restrictions on movement, more house demolitions and more humiliation."
"Lately, Tantur seems to be the perfect place to see what is happening here," he said. "But I won't deny for a moment that it is a very scary thing to see."
Marie Cable, a senior in the College of Arts and Letters who studied in Jerusalem last spring agreed. "It's a fairly volatile place and in terms of what I see right now, the program is probably better off not happening," she said. "But I can hardly imagine what I would feel if I was supposed to go and had been denied. It was probably the best thing I've done with my life."
Burrell said he understood the students' disappointment.
"I feel terrible about it, but we have to bow to reality and sometimes it's good for American's to know we can't fix everything," he said.
The Jerusalem program did, however, provide a unique perspective on the conflict. While attending classes at three local institutions, Notre Dame students studied with Palestinian, Israeli and Arab students, and lived with scholars of countless faiths to discuss modern issues at Tantur.
"The Tantur program provides a rich study in the culture and history of a complex region of the world, important in shaping the course of human evolution, the development of complex civilizations and the philosophies of three major faith traditions," said Sheridan. "By placing Notre Dame students in classes at [three local universities] participants learn this area from a variety of perspectives."
"No matter how many times you can read it in a book, when you see people experiencing these things it changes everything," said Cable. "It's a whole new way to experience international relations and government, religion and philosophy… you name it. It's alive there and it has been for thousands of years."
Even students like Cable and Sweeney — who have had phenomenal experiences through the Jerusalem program — saw the need for its cancellation this spring.
"We took counsel of students who have been there the past two years, as well as many people on the ground [in Israel currently]," said Burrell. "I was especially gratified by the good judgement shown by our students, and the care and concern they have exhibited for their friends there."
All News Stories for Wednesday, November 1, 2000