Inside story'A lot of us feel safer in Israel mid-war than we do abroad'

Citing antisemitism abroad, Jewish students stream to Israeli university as war rages

Though many academic programs have delayed their start dates, Reichman University opens its English-language tracks for an unexpected influx of visitors wanting to study in Israel

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

From left to right: students Gitty Gadol, Ivan Zlunitcyn, Daniel Zagury, Raphael Recanati International School head Jonathan Davis, students Junil Lee and Eitan Saffra, at the Reichman University campus in Hertzilia, on Sunday November 19, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
From left to right: students Gitty Gadol, Ivan Zlunitcyn, Daniel Zagury, Raphael Recanati International School head Jonathan Davis, students Junil Lee and Eitan Saffra, at the Reichman University campus in Hertzilia, on Sunday November 19, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

When the Israel-Hamas conflict began on October 7, Daniel Zagury, 18, was a new undergraduate student at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. He was beginning what was to have been a four-year course of study for a bachelor’s degree.

But for Zagury, who grew up mostly in London in an Israeli family, it became apparent that the tensions surrounding the war would be too difficult to handle in Spain. This week, he began a new course of study in Israel instead.

He is one of a number of students at the Raphael Recanati International School who have made similar decisions following the Hamas atrocities of October 7. The Times of Israel visited the tree-lined Herzliya campus on November 19, the first day of school, and met with Zagury and other students in a busy cafeteria right before their first class.

In Madrid, “when the war started, immediately tensions shot up. I was super uncomfortable,” said Zagury. “People were demonstrating, coming in groups, a lot of Jews received death threats, and there was harassment. After the first day, before Israel even responded, there were already people out there with keffiyehs and flags.”

“I was surrounded by people who hated me in Madrid, so why should I stay there?” he said.

Packing his bags, Zagury came to visit family in Israel and decided to stay. One phone call and a quick campus visit later, he was enrolled at Recanati as a communications major.

“I find it a bit crazy… a lot of us feel safer in Israel mid-war than we do in Europe or America,” he said.

I was surrounded by people who hated me in Madrid, so why should I stay

The Israel-Hamas war began with a brutal terror assault from Gaza on October 7 that took the lives of some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians. Over 240 Israeli citizens, including children and the elderly, were taken captive by Hamas terrorists. The subsequent call-up of reserve IDF forces, the largest in the country’s history at some 360,000 people, and its ongoing aerial and ground campaign to remove Hamas from power in Gaza and rescue the hostages have played havoc with Israel’s higher education system.

Since a significant number of university students are on reserve duty (one estimate is around 30 percent of all enrolled students countrywide), not to mention the thousands of university staff members also serving, the main universities pushed back the start of the academic year from October 15 to December 24, contingent on the release of the IDF reservists.

The Reichman University campus. (Courtesy)

The Raphael Recanati International School — part of Reichman University (formerly the IDC Herzliya), the only private university in Israel — offers technology and business-oriented BA and MA programs in English. Once the Recanati administrators realized that even with the war raging, a significant portion of their student body wanted to stay and continue their studies, it was decided to officially open the BA program on November 19 in a hybrid classroom/remote format. The MA and MBA programs are to start in December.

It was this delay that enabled Zagury to make his transfer; though he had already started the semester in Madrid, he was able to leave and transfer to Recanati in time to begin the semester in Israel along with everyone else. Some of the other English-language programs, such as the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, began their studies shortly after the original starting date of October 15.

The timing also helped Eitan Saffra, 20, begin a communications BA program at Recanati. Saffra, from New York City, was studying at a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh when the war broke out. He had planned to return to the US in December and possibly apply to Yeshiva University, but was swayed by “being here in a time of war and seeing how the rest of the world is fighting each other, but here we’re coming together… this is home, this is where the family is.”

Saffra, a budding podcaster, said that seeing “how the [Israeli] community came together and helped each other was very uplifting, and when I came to visit [Recanati], I felt the same closeness and unity. It finally feels like I can be passionate about school.”

Recanati usually has around 2,400 enrolled students, who mostly hail from North America, Europe, and South Africa. At the outbreak of the war, a significant number were still abroad or had left the country, but the administration says many of these students are now returning or will join in the semester remotely.

Israeli Infantry reservists seen during a light arms training in northern Golan Heights before heading south to the Gaza Strip on October 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Reichman University as a whole has around 8,000 students. About half of these are currently in reserve duty, the administration says. All the universities have announced various aid packages for their students who are serving, and Reichman is no exception.

“We are going to give them a very generous package, including academic credit [for their IDF service],” said Jonathan Davis, who has served as the director of Recanati since the program began in 2001. “We know that when they come back, we are going to have their backs, they are going to be flying business class. We will be taking special care of them.”

For Davis, the issues of both international students and IDF veterans are deeply personal. Meeting this reporter in his campus office lined with Zionist movement memorabilia, he relates that he himself was doing his BA as a new immigrant from California in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War broke out, in which he fought as a young IDF recruit.

Raphael Recanati International School director Jonathan Davis, on campus on November 19, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Although that war entailed less than three weeks of combat, Davis continued in reserve duty in Sinai for several months afterward.

When he got back to civilian life, “this specific professor, that person’s academic truth was not to put service for the country into his way of thinking. I owed this one paper to finish my BA, and he just wouldn’t give me an extension,” said Davis.

“The way he said it to me — ‘don’t preach Zionism to me’ — it scarred me, upset me, not just academically, but also as a new immigrant and lone soldier,” Davis recalled, noting that he eventually worked through the problem and got his degree.

Davis calls this experience “academic PTSD” and asserts that the Reichman University administration will do all it can to both help returning student-soldiers integrate back into academic life and help prospective international students easily enroll and begin their studies.

Gitty Gadol, 20, from Toronto, is another new student who saw her life changed because of the conflict and benefited from the November 19 start and quick admissions.

“Right after the war hit I was in New York City, and just looking around it was very isolating… you see these people and they just don’t understand you. I was wearing a Star of David necklace and I felt it was pretty scary,” she said.

I was wearing a Star of David necklace and I felt it was pretty scary

Gadol said she was already planning to move to Israel, but the war “definitely pushed me a lot more.” She decided to immigrate immediately and ended up enrolling at Recanati.

Most of the international students are Jewish, but there is a significant presence from various Asian countries — enough so that Davis, as director, has in the past planned student celebrations for Chinese New Year.

Junil Lee, 23, hails from South Korea and is in his final year of a computer science degree. Feeling safe living in the dorms on campus, he didn’t go back home, he said, even though the South Korean government sent a military cargo plane a few weeks ago to evacuate Korean nationals.

A lot of the Asian students did return home and will be able to continue their degree remotely, but “I have already been through corona times, it was very challenging, and I didn’t want to be in that position again,” said Lee. “I am very happy with my decision, I love the people here, it’s a unique experience.”

Raphael Racanati International School students Noa Rozenfeld, left, and Esther Watsman, on November 19, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Leaving the university cafe, this reporter encounters two students from Paris, Noa Rozenfeld and Esther Watsman, both 18, who are picking up their bags and heading to their first class. They both said they didn’t even think about returning to France, despite the war.

“It’s better here, it’s too antisemitic in Paris,” Watsman said. “France is my nationality, but my people are here.”

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