Over a hundred faculty, students, and alumni of the California State University system have signed an open letter opposing the return of a study abroad program in Israel–but critics say their initiative, if successful, would limit the academic freedom of students. The letter is addressed to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed and cites Israel’s human rights record, lack of a comparable study abroad program in Palestine, safety concerns, and budget cuts at CSU as reasons for opposing the program.

“CSU participation with the government of Israel in the proposed study abroad program could be interpreted as an endorsement of the international crime of apartheid,” the letter states.

David Klein, a professor of mathematics at CSU Northridge and the letter’s primary author, maintained that it was morally necessary to express solidarity with human rights.

“Many other countries in the world that commit human rights violations face sanctions by the U.S. government,” he said. “Israel is the exception.”

Some people in the U.S. tend to gloss over Israel’s human rights record, according to Klein.

“Any criticism of Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing, or other human rights violations is met with extreme hostility from pro-Israel supporters in the U.S. who demand to know why other countries are not being criticized instead,” said Klein, who has received hate mail and threats since the letter was released. “U.S. citizens may criticize the U.S., France, or any other country, but not Israel without paying a personal price.”

But some took issue with Klein’s invocation of apartheid.

“Constant use of the apartheid reference is completely false,” said Dr. Samuel Edelman, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. “In South Africa there was public policy and government behind apartheid, there is no such thing in Israel.”

Edelman also disagreed with the letter’s contention that it was unsafe for students in Israel.

“The idea that it is unsafe to study abroad in Israel is patently ridiculous and an attempt to delegitimize Israel,” said Dr. Samuel Edelman. “In fact, [studying in Israel] is safer than Mexico where students have been raped, robbed or molested.”

SPME issued a letter signed by 64 scholars commending the chancellors of CSU for reinstating the study abroad program on November 30.

Others were pleased that CSU had announced a resumption of the study abroad program. Kenneth Marcus, executive vice president of the Jewish Institute for Community and Research, said students who want to study in Israel should be allowed to do so.

“The efforts to curtail Israel study programs is an infringement on the academic freedom of students to learn in a manner that is not unreasonably limited by the political doctrines of their professors,” he said.

He also said that though human rights violations occur in countries all over the world–many with worse records than Israel–universities are not in the habit of banning study abroad programs in those countries because it defeats the very purpose of study abroad, which is to “broaden students‘ intellectual horizons and to give them a sense of what life is like in very different places.”

“After all, most countries do have human rights problems, and college students should not be forced to live in a bubble,” he said.

When asked about the possible benefits of students learning about Israel firsthand, and whether academic freedom was applicable in this case, Klein declined to comment. The letter itself called for a similar program in Palestinian territories if CSU were to keep the Israel program.

Edelman sees the program as a tremendous opportunity for students to study the region and its conflicts.

“Israel is a bastion of human rights and democracy, the only functioning democracy in the middle east,” said Edelman. “What better way to let students learn about the conflict?”