When Sandy closed the university for a week last semester, we all got a taste of college life under emergency conditions. But students studying at NYU’s Tel Aviv campus faced a scarier reality: The prospect of enemy rockets, and the reality of an upended semester abroad. We first brought you news of last semester’s conflict in Israel as it was breaking. Now we check in with Tel Aviv students to bring you the story of what happened after the evacuation.
When the eleven NYU students studying at NYUs Tel Aviv campus woke up last November 14, they would have never guessed that they would end up spending their last four weeks in a Midtown hotel paid for by NYU.
“I first heard about the conflict when I was in my favorite bookstore talking to the owner about an assignment I had for school.” That’s Erin O’Donnell, one of the eleven undergraduates who studied in Tel Aviv last semester.
“The [Israeli Defence Forces] had assassinated Ahmed Jabari, a Hamas military commander,” O’Donnell told us. “Tension was building up in the south as more rockets were launched in southern Israel, but this assassination was a turning point according to the store owner. It was pretty unsettling to see this guy suddenly look so alarmed within a matter of seconds.”
Conflict between Israel and Palestine is not uncommon, specifically near the Gaza territory in southern Israel (A six-month ceasefire in 2008 received its own Wikipedia article). Despite their regularity, the rockets fired over the border are real as is the threat they pose. Tel Aviv is fifty miles North of Gaza, but Palestinian rockets reportedly landed within eight miles of the city — and NYU’s campus.
Alarms were sounded in Tel Aviv. Cynthia Blank, a CAS senior who was there last semester, told us that she had “had previously experienced a few alarm sirens from rocket attacks” while staying with her boyfriend in southern Israel, but back in Tel Aviv “with the Operation and increased rocket fire, especially hitting closer to Tel Aviv, it became more tense and frightening.”
On November 17, three days after the IDF had assassinated Jabari and without a cease to the rocket fire in sight, NYU decided to evacuate. “NYU Tel Aviv offered to move us up somewhere more north in the country to wait out the Operation,” Blank said. “But the staff in New York were very precautionary and preferred to evacuate.”
Given 24 hours to pack their bags, the eleven students flew to London the next day where they were met by NYU staff. The transition from sunny Tel Aviv to frigid November London wasn’t easy. “Some of us had gotten off the plane in flip flops,” O’Donnell said. NYU was quick to clothe these underdressed undergrads. “Not only did they pay for our hotel but they also bought us winter coats and sweaters.”
After their shopping spree, students learned that they could finish the semester in Florence, Prague, London or back in New York. Two continued abroad, but the rest returned to New York . Some Washington Square professors would allow students to sit in on classes, but most had to finish their classes with Israeli professors over Skype.
Students lived for four weeks in the Affinia Hotel across from Penn Station, with two students to a room that had its own mini-kitchen. There they continued to enjoy the warm treatment NYU had provided in London. “NYU then paid for our hotel, Metrocards, and even a meal plan,” O’Donnell told us. “It sort of became a joke that it takes rocket fire to get NYU’s attention.”
For NYC-based students who routinely struggle to squeeze as much value out of their tuition as they can while packed into a 7-person low cost residence hall, the amenities NYU provided for the Tel Aviv students — paid flights to evacuate, clothes shopping, meal plans — may seem excessive. But these sort of “freebies” seem to be built in to the study abroad experiences of many students, even under regular circumstances:
“NYU Prague offered us many discounted, if not free, opportunities,” said Steinhardt senior Lillian Lee, who studied at the Prague site last year, and enjoyed NYU-compensated “Metrocards, overnight excursions to the countryside, dorm parties with Czech students and, of course, traditional Czech feasts!”
And while the evacuation certainly provided its unexpected challenges — O’Donnell said finishing her Arabic classes over Skype “was certainly an interesting way to end the semester” — students had nothing but good things to say about NYU’s response to the threat of violence in the city.
“They treated us exceptionally well,” said Blank.”Obviously, it was an extremely tough and trying experience, and they tried their best to account for that fact and make the transition as easy as possible.” O’Donnell went so far as to say she “[feels] a bit guilty for all the times I complained about NYU .. From the minute we left Tel Aviv, everything was covered for us.”
For all that we complain about our university, last semester showed that at least in times of crisis, the frequently sluggish bureaucracy can move swiftly and effectively to ensure the safety of its students. And we’re quick too recover, too. How has the evacuation affected operations in Tel Aviv? In this case, the proof is in the pudding: O’Donnell and a small number of students are in Tel Aviv for another semester. Hopefully this time, they’ll finish it there.