July 31 was the last day of Ulpan, the six-week Hebrew class at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students. Most of the students studying, lunching and lounging on the Mount Scopus campus that day were not Israelis. They were Americans, Canadians, South Koreans, Japanese taking Hebrew summer classes to prepare for the fall semester. The minority of Israelis on campus were retaking final exams. Ulpan’s finals were to be held on Thursday.
At 1:40 p.m., Sofia Aron was studying for her final the next day, when a bomb exploded in the Frank Sinatra cafeteria, killing at least seven and wounding some 85 people. The cafeteria is adjacent to the new Rothberg building, expanded some three years ago.
Aron, a 19-year-old UC Davis student, immediately began compiling a list of all her friends who might be there. "Everyone hangs out in that cafeteria," she said. She started calling friends on their cellphones, trying to locate her new roommate, Chloe Massey, a Christian from Somerset, England, who had arrived just two days prior.
Aron later found Massey, but still, "We know a lot of people who were there," she said, still in shock. "There’s no reason to target the campus here. There are so many Arabs studying here," the L.A. native said. "I’m shocked that it happened here. I told my parents that I’d be safe here."
The July 31 bombing — not a suicide attack, police believed, but a remotely detonated bomb for which Hamas claimed responsibility — hit one of the last perceived areas of safety in Israel.
The unprecedented attack on an Israeli university campus comes as a big blow to Hebrew University, which prides itself on its secular and pluralistic identity, with a diverse student body hailing from more than 70 countries that includes Israeli Jews and Arabs, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and American and European exchange students.
"This university has never been attacked," said Peter Weil, president of the American Friends of the Hebrew University, Greater Los Angeles region. The closest such incident occurred on April 13, 1947. Arab fighters ambushed a civilian medical convoy from the university, massacring some 80 doctors and nurses.
Officials at Hebrew University and its American affiliates — including the L.A. chapter — expressed their outrage at the incident. They also worried about the repercussions this tragedy might have on an already-ailing Israeli university system, as well as what it might bode regarding the future shape of terrorism.
The bombing follows a steady decrease in enrollment of American students at the university since the intifada began in September 2000. Approximately 1,000 American students enroll in the university’s Summer Ulpan, freshman year and masters programs, and popular junior-year and semester-abroad programs on a typical year. Enrollment this year was already down 40 percent from the previous year, which was far below 1,000.
Following the news of the tragedy, an executive meeting at the Los Angeles offices of American Friends of the Hebrew University was held on the morning of July 31. Weil, Western Region Chairman Richard Ziman and eight other members of American Friends’ West Coast branch joined a conference call initiated by Hebrew University to update American affiliates on the situation and how it was being handled. Two university psychologists have been dispatched to the dorms, and more will be sent in coming days to help students cope with the tragedy.
"For the Palestinians or Hamas to do what they did," Ziman said, "is really striking at the heart of anything that affords the hope for peace in the future."
"I think it’s just another outrage that will push Israelis to dig deeper in their resolve to fight terrorism," Weil said. "This is not only a problem for the administration but from other universities who see the dangerous precedent this could set."
The surrounding buildings, including the Frank Sinatra Student Union, are all named after American supporters. The cafeteria is just across from Nancy Reagan Plaza, which is adjacent to the Rothberg School for Overseas Students.
"There are two towers both named after Angelenos — Richard Ziman and Harvey Silbert," Weil said, noting the prominence and dedication of American support to Hebrew University.
Safety on the campus, located atop Mt. Scopus, has never been an issue. Despite the numerous terrorist attacks that have taken place all around the campus, which is surrounded by some hostile Arab neighborhoods, Hebrew U. itself has never been targeted since it was founded in 1923 by a group of intellectuals and dignitaries that included Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber.
"The university feels that it had done an extraordinary job beefing up security around the university several months ago," Ziman said. "But it’s a very difficult environment. You have traffic of 10 to 15,000 people a day to keep the university functioning."
Campus newspapers lately had mentioned the possibility of an attack.
"It’s in the East Jerusalem and surrounded by some Arab neighborhoods that are unfriendly," Weil said. "But it’s on a hilltop so there’s only one way in. They have security and tall fences and you need identification to get in but it’s still an open university."
"Until today, the university was regarded as a very safe place," said Amy Sugin, director of the Office of Academic Affairs.
"Hebrew University has been the last island of sanity in Jerusalem with respect to Arab and Jewish coexistence," said Peter Willner, executive vice president of the American Friends of Hebrew University.
"We have to show our solidarity," said Ziman, whose daughter is presently studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. "There are several people leaving from New York to Hebrew University. I’ve been there this year in March and in June."
The support, Ziman added, is particularly needed in the wake of the second intifada.
"The universities in Israel are going through unique financial hardships," Ziman said. "The government allocations are down because of other involvement. Enrollment from overseas has gone down significantly and as a result, tuition is down. More local students have been called up to serve in the armed forces."
So what will this mean for Hebrew University? Ziman said that the attack at Hebrew U. could be systematic of a larger trend.
"I think this is a wake-up call, perhaps for universities all over the world," Ziman said. "Universities are some of the hotbed of political ideas. Look what’s happening in Tehran where university crackdowns are happening."
American Friends’ Los Angeles chapter hopes that this will not further erode enrollment at the university.
"Up until this time, nothing like this has happened on an Israeli university," Ziman said. "You felt like it was the unwritten law. We had the riots here and USC was untouched. Will it affect students from abroad going to learn there? I hope not."
For her part, UC Davis student Aron says she intends on taking another six-week Ulpan class and to do her semester abroad at Hebrew U. Right after the bombing, she hurriedly typed up an e-mail to her parents in Los Angeles: "I’m OK, don’t worry."
Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.