Princeton University has been accused of breaking a litany of promises to support a graduate student believed to have been abducted by a notorious armed militia earlier this year.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a 36-year-old dual Russian-Israeli citizen and U.S. resident enrolled at the Ivy League school, went missing in March while conducting research for her doctoral degree in Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad. She is a prominent analyst and social media commentator on Middle East politics with almost 80,000 followers on Twitter/X. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian and Foreign Policy, among others.
The group suspected of being behind the abduction has since been identified by the Israeli government as Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary group backed by Iran that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Six months after the Princeton student first disappeared, her sister, Emma Tsurkov, spoke with The Daily Beast about the “agonizing strain” of the kidnapping—which she says has only been compounded by Princeton’s handling of the crisis.
“Princeton has been one of the most infuriating institutions or organizations to deal with throughout the process,” said Emma, who has been engaging with American lawmakers, the U.S. State Department, Israeli officials, and several other advocacy groups on the case. “I’m feeling that it’s being treated as a PR problem that needs to be handled, rather than a life or death matter for its graduate student.”
When Elizabeth first went missing, Emma immediately took charge as the main advocate for her sister’s safe recovery. That included working with Princeton to help garner support for the researcher in hopes that they “would champion my sister’s release, similar to how the Wall Street Journal was with Evan Gershkovich,” Emma said, referring to the American journalist who was arrested in Russia earlier this year. But months later, she realized it wasn’t going the way she had hoped it would.
Emma asked the school to amend the initial statements it released following her sister’s kidnapping, in which the university did not elaborate beyond saying: “Elizabeth is a valued member of the Princeton University community. We are deeply concerned for her safety and wellbeing, and we are eager for her to be able to rejoin her family and resume her studies.”
An outpouring of dangerous conspiracy theories were shared on social media after news of the kidnapping broke—as previously reported by The Daily Beast—and Emma believed a more detailed statement from Princeton could quell the storm of disinformation.
In emails shared with The Daily Beast, Emma wrote to the university on July 6:
“In the past couple of days, a lot of media and public attention has been devoted to the misalignment between the statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office and Princeton’s comment. Specifically, the fact that Princeton did not acknowledge that Elizabeth was in Baghdad to do field work for her dissertation at Princeton… This was [falsely] perceived by many as [indicating] that Elizabeth is some sort of an intelligence officer for the US gov't, the Israeli gov't or both. Such a perception raises the stakes in the negotiations for her freedom and safety and can prevent her release.
“THIS POINT IS CRUCIAL FOR HER SAFE RETURN AND CAN LITERALLY DETERMINE WHETHER SHE LIVES OR DIES,” she added. In response, the Princeton official said they hoped to get back to her the following day.
Two days later, Emma followed up. “I would like to understand what is holding up a simple clarification,” she wrote on July 9. “The most important point is for the statement to mention that she was kidnapped while doing academic research in Baghdad. Every hour in which this sentence is not published is increasing the cost of her release and is causing very real damage to her chances of survival. That is not just my assessment, but also that of the authorities involved in this matter… If you truly care about my sister and her safety, please do this immediately.”
Experts who spoke with The Daily Beast corroborated the importance of the “simple clarification” Emma was so desperately pleading for in her emails to Princeton, including Mickey Bergman, the head of The Richardson Center, a nonprofit organization that helps negotiate for the release of prisoners held by hostile groups.
“By saying she was there doing research for them, it makes the U.S. connection stronger, and makes the responsibility of the U.S. government to apply pressure on Iraq much, much more solid, and almost forces it to happen. That is critical to saving her life,” Bergman, who started working on Elizabeth’s case a few months ago, told The Daily Beast, adding: “And it’s not the first time Princeton has a [student] prisoner [abroad].”
Bergman was referring to another case taken on by the Richardson Center years ago, after another Princeton graduate student, Xiyue Wang, was arrested while conducting research in Iran and subsequently detained for three years on espionage allegations.
Following his release in a December 2019 prisoner swap, Wang and his spouse filed a lawsuit accusing the Ivy League school of “reckless, willful, wanton, and grossly negligent acts” in connection to his detainment that resulted in “severe personal injuries.” The student alleged that although faculty officials had enthusiastically encouraged the trip, “any publicity regarding Mr. Wang’s arrest and detention was viewed as a negative for Princeton.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit ended in an undisclosed settlement reached by both parties last month. In a comment to The Daily Princetonian, a university spokesperson claimed that Wang had been given “extraordinary support” throughout the ordeal, and said: “in keeping with that support, we have chosen to help them move on with their lives by avoiding protracted litigation.”
Referring to Wang’s detainment, Bergman said: “I was very aware then that our encounters with Princeton were extremely frustrating, for similar reasons” to Elizabeth’s case. “For Princeton to engage in similar mistakes, within months after that settlement, is just really mind-boggling.”
Castle in the Air
Months after Emma first raised concerns about Princeton’s public statements regarding her sister’s abduction, a glimmer of hope emerged. After a winding back and forth with several Princeton officials, Emma was working with another university staff member on drafting a statement that both parties felt comfortable with, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“Let me see what we can do. I hope to come back to you shortly,” the university employee wrote in an email on Sept. 6, after Emma had made a few minor tweaks to a draft proposed by the staff member.
Shortly afterwards, Emma met with Princeton University’s provost, Jennifer Rexford, to discuss next steps on Sept. 14.
Emma says that during the meeting she was reassured that the university “knows that my sister was in Iraq doing field work for her approved dissertation, and I was promised that Princeton has no intention of distancing from Elizabeth.”
Just days after the meeting, The Daily Beast contacted Princeton to request comment on the university’s efforts to support Elizabeth’s recovery—and specifically inquired about how Elizabeth's travels related to her academic research as a Princeton student.
Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said, in a statement: “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 Princeton community. The University has been in ongoing contact with government officials and experts to understand how we can best support Elizabeth’s safe return to her family and her studies at Princeton.”.
When pressed about the school’s public position regarding Elizabeth’s field work in Iraq, Hotchkiss said that “The University limits information shared about individual students in keeping with legal requirements, including FERPA.”
Princeton has repeatedly cited FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, in response to comment requests from members of the media inquiring about the connection between Elizabeth’s dissertation research and her trip to Iraq . But according to Leroy Rooker, a former U.S. Department of Education official regarded as the country’s leading expert on the law, “that’s not the intent of FERPA.”
“I think it’s incredulous to be hesitating on something like that,” said Rooker, who is currently Senior Fellow at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Rooker cited “a useful exception” in the law, the health or safety emergency exception, noting that the university would simply have to record the disclosure in Elizabeth’s student record, and explain why it was deemed an emergency.
“This is not a time when you are going to quibble about that,” Rooker said. “Who’s going to file a complaint over it, the student? The department is not going to have an issue.”
The dispute over the statement is not the only reason Emma feels let down by Princeton. In an August email reviewed by The Daily Beast, she had reached out to the university’s provost saying she “had been promised a lot of things by different Princeton officials over the past five months—with different engagements via phone, email and zoom,” that had not been met.
The promises, Emma wrote, ranged from access to a “small amount” of the student’s stipend to help pay for Elizabeth’s rent, “the use the university’s international crisis management firm to retrieve my sister’s belongings from her apartment,” and an opportunity to talk to her sister’s academic advisors “for meaningful engagements.”
In another comment request to Princeton, The Daily Beast inquired about the other grievances Emma mentioned in the August correspondence, but did not receive a response by the given deadline.
“The particularly egregious part is that when I indicated interest in those offers of help, my time was wasted for weeks on end in tedious Zoom meetings,” only to have every request “slowly rejected,” Emma wrote in the Aug. 18 email. “In fact, to this day I am not aware of a single thing that Princeton has done to help get my sister back. If I am wrong about that, I would certainly like to know.”
No Stone Unturned
Despite the issues with Princeton, Elizabeth’s family has cast a wide net in their efforts to advocate for the graduate student, including having three U.S. congressman—Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—write letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for more pressure to be applied on the Iraqi government.
Emma told The Daily Beast she believes that the U.S. is “uniquely positioned” with the leverage needed to engage the Iraqi government, as does Bergman of The Richardson Center.
“The United States prides itself in attracting talent around the world to come to our higher education institutions. And when they come here, and those institutions send them around abroad to do research, we should be interested in protecting them and getting them back, especially if we can,” Bergman said.
Citing Kataib Hezbollah’s deep ties to the Iraqi government, Bergman also raised the point that “the United States financially supports the government of Iraq, in large numbers. And by supporting the Government of Iraq, they support Kataib Hezbollah indirectly.”
“There’s going to be a question, wait a minute, we’re funding the government of Iraq, right? We need them to do something for us here, right?” Bergman said.
In response to inquiries from The Daily Beast about U.S. engagement with the case, a State Department spokesperson said: “We strongly condemn the abduction. We are concerned by and closely tracking this case. We have no further comment.”
When news of Elizabeth’s abduction was first reported by Israel in July (the family had initially hoped to recover her without turning the ordeal into a “news sensation,” Emma said), Israeli security officials said they would coordinate with the U.S. to free the graduate student, but have yet to specify the nature of their efforts. Moscow, meanwhile, has mostly kept quiet about the issue, with the Russian ambassador to Iraq at one point saying: “I don’t know whether she is really a Russian citizen or not, where she came from and whether she entered Iraq or not.”
The Kataeb Hezbollah militia has since suggested that it is not connected to Elizabeth’s disappearance, despite the government reports and experts claiming otherwise.
The Iraqi government, for its part, claimed to have launched an investigation into the matter back in July.
Both Bergman and the Tsurkov family told The Daily Beast that although they do believe Elizabeth is still alive, there has been “no proof of life, no list of demands or anything like that” for the past six months.
But Emma has no intention of losing hope anytime soon. “I don’t go there because it’s an unhelpful area to think about. Elizabeth is a wonderfully warm and kind person, and she really knows how to connect with people from all backgrounds and walks of life. So I have to trust in her ability to stay alive, while I do everything I can here to get her out of there. I know she will do her part, and she knows I will do mine.”
“The bottom line is, I don’t care about Princeton. I don’t care about any of the administrative people,” she told The Daily Beast. “I just want my sister back.”