Emma Tsurkov, the sister of Elizabeth Tsurkov GS, claims that Princeton University is trying to “distance itself from any responsibility” in her sister’s kidnapping in Iraq in an op-ed on NJ.com on Wednesday, Aug. 23.
The op-ed alleges that Elizabeth Tsurkov’s advisors were aware of her travel to Iraq for dissertation research. In a statement to the Daily Princetonian, University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote that “University Travel to Iraq is not permitted for students (graduate or undergraduate), and there are no exceptions.”
In the op-ed, Emma Tsurkov faults the University for not releasing a statement specifically stating that Elizabeth Tsurkov was in Iraq for dissertation research.
“Princeton was trying to distance itself from any responsibility for Elizabeth’s situation — denying my requests for them to issue a public statement from the university affirming she is a graduate student and was doing research for her dissertation in Baghdad — I could not understand why,” Emma Tsurkov writes.
The University did release a statement noting that Elizabeth Tsurkov was a graduate student on July 6. The statement does not mention Elizabeth Tsurkov’s research.
Emma Tsurkov writes that she “heard from U.S. government officials that Princeton officials were leading them to believe that my sister was operating on her own.” The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Emma Tsurkov did not respond to a request to comment or provide documentation of her claims to the ‘Prince’ by time of publication.
In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote that “after learning of Elizabeth’s disappearance, out of concern for her safety, the University immediately communicated with certain Israeli and U.S. government officials.” He added that once her situation became public, the University “has and continues to communicate with relevant U.S. government officials and experts” about how to best support her safe return.
On July 5, four months after Elizabeth Tsurkov first disappeared in Iraq, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that she is being held by the Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah. The group is linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.
Elizabeth Tsurkov disappeared after leaving a cafe in Baghdad, Iraq. In July, the New York Times cited Elizabeth Tsurkov’s family on the fact that that she was in Iraq conducting research for her Princeton dissertation.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Ph.D. candidate in the Politics department. She matriculated at Princeton in 2019 and specializes in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, and Israel-Palestine. The University has boosted Elizabeth Tsurkov’s analysis of Syria in the past, posting about her contribution to the Washington Post about Syrian elections and her observations on the field. The New York Times noted that Elizabeth Tsurkov has worked extensively in the Middle East and traveled to Iraq over 10 times, according to Iraqi officials.
Emma Tsurkov claims in the op-ed that her sister’s advisors for her dissertation, including the chair, Dean Amaney Jamal, Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), “reviewed, advised, and approved” her dissertation prospectus, which detailed her plan to conduct fieldwork in Iraq.
Emma Tsurkov writes her sister “was particularly grateful that Dr. Jamal took a personal interest in the fieldwork that she was developing in Iraq.” Emma Tsurkov did not present or cite any evidence to support the claim.
Jamal declined a request for comment.
According to the University, the Department of Global Security and Safety (GS&S) categorizes each location based on risk. Iraq is currently classified as “category X,” which means that as determined by the GS&S, travel is not feasible, “even with significant precautions taken.” University travel is not permitted to a category X destination for students, faculty, or staff.
The U.S. Department of State also classifies Iraq as a level 4, the highest travel advisory, which urges U.S. citizens to not travel there, as there are “high risks to [U.S. citizens] safety and security, including the potential for violence and kidnapping.”
According to Hotchkiss, the prospectus approval process is “separate and distinct from other steps that may be required to carry out the proposed research, including in absentia enrollment, travel registration, and Institutional Review Board approval (if the proposed research involves human subjects).”
Hotchkiss emphasized that all members of the University community participating in University travel must follow the Permitted Travel Policy guidelines, and register their trip in the Enroll My Trip system before the travel occurs. However, students may conduct independent or personal travel without University approval.
“Compliance with the Permitted Travel Policy for University travel is an individual responsibility, and failure to do so may result in a traveler being ineligible for University funding or other resources,” Hotchkiss wrote.
Emma Tsurkov claims that her sister received the Graduate Student Dissertation Grant from the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.
When asked if Elizabeth Tsurkov’s travel to Iraq was approved by the University or if her prior work in Syria — which is also categorized as an X level destination – was through the University, Hotchkiss wrote that “the University limits information shared about individual students in keeping with legal requirements, including FERPA.”
Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of Political Science at Northwestern and the Edelson Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Dickey Center at Dartmouth College, wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince’ that “there is no universal rule for how countries deal with international kidnappings; every country has its own policies and practices for bringing hostages home. Accordingly, there's no set procedure to say that any given country will take responsibility or succeed.”
Considering Elizabeth Tsurkov is a dual Russian-Israeli citizen and has various institutional affiliations, Gilbert added that “we can also expect that there are a number of players with interest and connections that might help free her.”
“Russia has notoriously sacrificed hostages' lives, while Israel has quite famously engaged in prisoner swaps to bring hostages home,” Gilbert wrote.
The government of Israel released a statement in support of Elizabeth Tsurkov on July 5.
“Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being,” Netanyahu’s office said.
Elizabeth Tsurkov’s abduction was not public knowledge until the Israeli government’s July statement, though her family was made aware, according to the New York Times.
“One of the things I know without question about my sister is that she loves my son, her only nephew,” Emma Tsurkov writes in her op-ed. “When I send her a photo of him, she responds regardless of where she is or what she is doing. So when six hours passed — and then 12 — I knew she was in trouble.” This was on March 21.
Gilbert wrote that she hopes the U.S. government is working with other parties to recover Elizabeth Tsurkov safely. She added that if the U.S. government can support her safety, it likely will do so, but there will probably be no public evidence to that effect.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is the second doctoral student to be held in the Middle East within five years. Xiyue Wang, another Ph.D. student, was held in Iran for more than three years after his arrest in 2016 while traveling for research through the Department of History. Local authorities charged him with espionage. He was freed in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran in December of 2019 following years of protests and vigils calling for his release.
In 2021, Wang sued the University for “severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm.” His lawsuit claimed that the University encouraged him to travel to Iran despite safety concerns and prioritized their reputation and relationship with Iran over fighting for his release.
Both Emma Tsurkov and the University emphasized their commitment to bringing Elizabeth Tsurkov home and their concern for her well-being.
“The University continues to be deeply concerned for Elizabeth’s safety and well-being. As a graduate student in Politics, she is a valued member of the University community,” Hotchkiss wrote.
“We want Princeton, as one of her main connections to the United States, to be an ally in this effort,” Emma Tsurkov writes. Princeton must not only meet its moral responsibility for my sister, but also honor the words it claims as its unofficial motto: “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.’”
Lia Opperman is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.