A new Mideast victim - Fulbright grants

One of the best lectures about America I ever heard was a talk that Fulbright scholar Laura Kalman gave to my law students at Tel Aviv University in 2001. In one hour Professor Kalman, a legal historian from the University of California, Santa Barbara, brought the case of Brown v. Board of Education to life, painting a vivid picture of one of America's most traumatic issues and how democratic institutions aimed to finally correct it. Her talk gave a greater appreciation of the United States to the young people fortunate enough to hear it.

As a member of the volunteer board of directors of the Fulbright educational exchange program in Israel, I've had contact with the brilliant students and scholars chosen to receive grants to study in the US - and have heard what they accomplish there. It all has made me understand why this program can be viewed as one of the most significant American contributions to the rest of the world. These are the things that went through my mind when I heard of the Palestinian attack last week in Gaza that killed three American security personnel accompanying Fulbright committee members on their way to interview Palestinian Fulbright candidates and candidates for the related Humphrey program for professionals in public service.

The murders were a statement against the United States, a statement exacerbated by crowds that later stoned American investigators at the scene. Those who planned the attack and those who pushed the detonator under the convoy did more than kill three individuals. They ironically targeted an American gift that works to their much-needed advantage.

The Fulbright program in Gaza is separate from the one in Israel, but it operates on the same principle, as do Fulbright programs worldwide: Grants are provided for outstanding scholars to continue research, and for students to pursue graduate studies in the US - with the stipulation that they thereafter return to their countries of origin. American scholars and students, in turn, travel to institutions of higher learning around the world. The program is at once a brain exchange and an institutional ambassador for American civilization.

Last year, nine students and three scholars from Gaza traveled to the US on Fulbright grants. An official at the US embassy in Tel Aviv says that scholars who return to Gaza after the experience "have a new respect for the United States, and are able to see the nuances in our policies. They have come to love - they use this word - America."

Fulbright applications from Gaza this year include the fields of psychology, mathematics, computers, medically related research, engineering, business, and public health - all fields of expertise desperately needed in that troubled society. But the wreckage of the car, and the dead and wounded inside, have jeapordized the future of the Fulbright program in Gaza.

Violence in Israel has prompted many new measures to help ensure the safety of American Fulbrighters, ranging from intensive security briefings, an extra travel stipend to reduce the need for using public transportation, and guards at the program's offices. In the last few years, the Israeli Fulbright program has struggled to maintain its vitality. American students and scholars are continuing to participate in fields from microbiology to Byzantine civilization, from literature to labor law. No Fulbrighters have left the country for security reasons, even after the devastating 2002 terrorist bomb on the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In Gaza, the picture is less rosy. Although American scholars did exercise their grants at Gazan universities during the 1990s, the US travel ban imposed since the outbreak of the intifada has ended this arm of the program. Thus the Fulbright in Gaza is for the time being only a one-way avenue. Furthermore, its administration is disrupted by violence, including street battles, military closures, and roadblocks. Even after their scholarships have been approved, Gazan grantees often have difficulty crossing the border to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for visas, and post-Sept. 11 scrutiny delays visa approvals.

But all that was nothing compared with what happened this week. Now, all travel by American Fulbright officials into Gaza has been terminated. Those Gazans slated to be interviewed on the day of the bombing will still have their chance - interviews will be conducted by videoconferencing. American officials vow that the Gaza Fulbright program will continue. But after this bloody obstacle, the future looks shaky at best.

Three vibrant lives cut short, three more shattered families, and more bloodshed on ground that has absorbed too much already. The fruits of the Fulbright program - the priceless gifts of education, exchange of knowledge, and respect for civilizations other than one's own - may be victims as well.

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.

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