I recently received an email from a Stanford University review board notifying me that my study-abroad application was not very competitive. The reason? I wanted to study in a country that was unsafe, or more specifically, on the U.S. State Department’s list of travel warnings.
No, I did not want to study in North Korea, Libya, or Iran where less-than-amicable governments occasionally detain U.S. citizens; likewise, I did not apply to study in Syria, Somalia, or Iraq where sectarian violence and tribal warfare present serious safety concerns to Americans abroad. Instead, I wanted to study Arabic in the Israeli city of Haifa.
Now, don’t get me wrong—significant security threats abound in the Israel region. Occasionally, Qassam and Katyusha rockets breach Israel’s borders at the behest of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other paramilitary groups. Furthermore, Israel has combated all of its adjacent neighbors since its inception in 1948, and the potential for military reprisal always exists. One must also not forget the egregious and indiscriminate acts of murder committed by the occasional school bus bomber or nightclub shooter against Israeli civilians. These are serious threats.
However, a quick look at the official State Department travel warning reveals that these legitimate yet limited security concerns primarily pertain to Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank—not Israel proper. These threats, although serious, do not reflect the security situation in Israel as a whole. Instead, they paint a skewed picture of Israel as a much more dangerous place than reality suggests.
First, it is important to note that, although the travel warning extends to all of “Israel, The West Bank, and Gaza,” the serious threats to Americans are centered in just Gaza and the West Bank. As such, the U.S. bans travel to the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank for federal employees, and the few U.S. officials who do make the trip to Gaza do so in armored vehicles with security escorts. Similarly, the State Department rightly warns that in the West Bank “vehicles are regularly targeted by rocks, Moltov cocktails, and gunfire” while “exchanges of fire” are regular occurrences in Gaza.
But Gaza and the West Bank, the epicenters of security threats to Americans near Israel, are not officially part of the Israeli state. In fact, the travel warning notes that Israeli metropolises are safer if not as safe as other global cities. The State Department lists the Israeli crime rate as “moderate” and its homicide rate is significantly below America’s own homicide rate. Israel’s relative safety is reflected in the 3.54 million tourists who traveled there in 2013, over 600,000 of whom were Americans and only 28 percent of whom were Jewish.
Serious assaults on Americans in Israel are few and far between, especially in comparison to those in other countries. The last American death by force in Israel occurred in 2012; an American man opened fire in a Red Sea hotel and was then shot by police. The last American death at the hands of terrorists allegedly occurred when Palestinians stabbed a hiker in 2010. Contrast this with the four reported homicides of Americans in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, as well as seven in Jamaica in 2013. Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica are not listed on any State Department travel warnings.
One could argue that this paucity of attacks against Americans in Israel is a result of prevention efforts like the State Department warning, and this may be true. But the warning still begs the question of why the State Department bundles Israel—a relatively safe travel destination for Americans, with the dangerous areas of Gaza and the West Bank?
Is it a political move to avoid the scrutiny of pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington who disapprove of a two-state solution? This is plausible, but wouldn’t pro-Israeli lobbyists place a greater value on the tourist revenue that public perception of a safe Israel brings than they would on taxonomical unity? It may also be a practical move, as it is easier to issue one warning for Israel and the surrounding area instead of two separate warnings. If this is the case, it would seem to be an unnecessary conjunction of diverse security threats into one alert—but no alert can properly capture the stark contrasts between the security situation in Israel and that in Gaza and the West Bank.
More importantly, why should we care how the State Department issues its travel warnings? For one, Stanford University has a policy of prohibiting any undergraduate or Stanford-sponsored trips to countries where the State Department has issued a travel warning. This means that students seeking to conduct research in Israel and other listed countries ostensibly cannot do so with Stanford approval or money, independent of how safe the location of their research within those listed countries are.
On a broader scale, however, by labeling the security situation in Israel in the same way we label the security situation in the West Bank and Gaza, we are allowing fringe elements within Israel to determine our perception of the country as a whole. Four percent of all Israelis live in the West Bank and Gaza, and yet we allow the events that occur there to shape our entire travel policy toward Israel. This is akin to Israel announcing a travel warning regarding the United States because of the 412 and 333 murders per year in Chicago and New York City, respectively. Prima facie, doing so seems to miss the bigger picture.
As negotiations move forward between the Israelis and the Palestinians, let us hope that the real situation on the ground, and not exceptions to the rule, determine policy. Even small steps like creating separate travel warnings for Israel and the Palestinian Territories can have a positive impact.