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Faculty Vote to End Israel Study Abroad

Pitzer professors seek to suspend the college's program at University of Haifa as study abroad becomes target for supporters of Israel boycott.

November 28, 2018
 
University of Haifa

Faculty at Pitzer College voted earlier this month to suspend the college’s study abroad program in Israel.

Pitzer faculty say the question will next go to the College Council for a vote.

Study abroad programs have increasingly become a target of the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The Pitzer vote follows two widely reported instances in which a professor and graduate instructor at the University of Michigan cited their support for the academic boycott in declining to write letters of recommendation for students seeking to study abroad at Israeli universities.

Advocates for ending study abroad programs in Israel argue that academic boycotts are a nonviolent mechanism for resisting Israeli policies that infringe on the freedoms of Palestinians, including academic freedoms, and that American universities shouldn’t be complicit in Israeli visa and border control policies that could prevent all of their students from participating in study abroad programs there.

Opponents of the academic boycott argue that Israel is being unfairly singled out for special scrutiny and that restricting Israel study abroad programs limits students’ learning opportunities and violates their academic freedom.

A Pitzer Student Senate resolution introduced at the organization’s Nov. 11 meeting describes the faculty vote to suspend the college’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa as “an advancement of a political agenda at the expense of students who seek opportunities in Middle East/North African Studies, Arabic, Hebrew, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the intercultural relations of Israeli and Palestinian ethnicities.”

The resolution says that "only the University of Haifa study abroad program was called into question without the same standards of review being applied to any other study abroad program" and it “denounces the faculty’s desire to suspend the study abroad program at the University of Haifa and the Faculty’s decision to act unilaterally without regard to student voice.” Student Senate representatives did not respond to inquiries about the status of the resolution, but the status on the Senate website is variously listed as "proposed"/"pending approval."

A Pitzer spokeswoman confirmed that the Israel study abroad program is not currently suspended, and said the college administration is declining to comment while the issue is considered through Pitzer's governance channels.

“The college community of students, faculty and staff are deliberating the issue through Pitzer’s shared governance process,” the spokeswoman, Anna Chang, said via email. “The college do not plan to release any formal statements until the process is completed.”

Daniel Segal, the professor who put forward the resolution, said it is his understanding that it will be debated at a Thursday meeting of the College Council and voted on by faculty and voting student delegates at a subsequent meeting in January. He said he cannot say for sure whether the Pitzer administration or board can legally overrule the council but that his expectation is that its vote will be binding. "I do not think there has been a single time when College Council has made a curricular decision that is clearly within their purview that has not then become policy," he said.

The resolution, which Segal said was approved by "at least" a four-to-one ratio in a collegewide faculty meeting earlier this month, calls for suspending the college's exchange program at the University of Haifa "until (a) the Israeli state ends its restrictions on entry to Israel based on ancestry and/or political speech and (b) the Israeli state adopts policies granting visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a fully equal basis as it does to Israeli universities."

Part of what is at issue here -- per clause (a) of the resolution -- is a 2017 law barring entry to Israel for foreign supporters of boycotts. An American student with a visa to pursue a master’s degree at Hebrew University of Jerusalem was denied entry to Israel under the law earlier this fall on the basis of her past presidency of a Students for Justice for Palestine chapter at the University of Florida. The student, Lara Alqasem, appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled that her “actions do not raise satisfactory cause to bar her entry to Israel” and permitted her to enter after she spent more than two weeks in an airport detention center.

Also at issue is the reported differential treatment of individuals of Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern origin by Israeli border control authorities and -- per clause (b) of the resolution -- what scholarly groups have reported to be an increase in visa denials for foreign faculty seeking to teach at Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel controls entry to. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel issued a statement from Samia Botmeh, a dean of Birzeit University, in the West Bank, in which she praised the Pitzer faculty vote and said that foreign faculty are being forced out of the West Bank and would-be international students denied entry.

“We shouldn’t be listing as an approved program, meaning we endorse it, a program which in practice will discriminate against some of our students on the basis of ancestry and/or legitimate political speech,” said Segal, the author of the resolution and the Jean M. Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and Professor of History. “We should on the other hand be good allies for colleagues who are suffering from grave violations of their academic freedom and who have asked us for their support. It’s the right thing to do to oppose discrimination against some of our students and it’s the right thing to do to support academic freedom of those whose academic freedom is being violated."

Faculty also approved another resolution at their meeting -- also put forward by Segal -- objecting to a move by the college's Board of Trustees to nullify a resolution to divest from certain companies associated with Israel approved by the Student Senate in April 2017. “Independent of agreeing or disagreeing with that resolution, we the Faculty object to the president and trustees singling out this one issue as a basis for not accepting the Senate’s longstanding autonomy in controlling its funds, in the context of Pitzer’s governance system,” the second resolution stated.

Controversy over the trustees' actions in that instance led to the creation of a working group on Israel-Palestine comprised of students, faculty and trustees. The working group produced a report that was fairly neutral on the question of study abroad, concluding that "too little is known about the precise ways in which the Israeli travel ban [on boycott supporters] would potentially affect staff, students or faculty wishing to participate in our institutional relationship with the University of Haifa" and that "the working group sees the educational benefit of facilitating experiential learning around Israel-Palestine issues and does not wish to create a barrier to study in the region."

The working group’s chairperson, Claudia Strauss, said in an interview Tuesday that she voted in favor of the resolution to suspend the Haifa study abroad program. “I actually went through a change in my own thinking about it after we issued the report,” said Strauss, a professor of anthropology. “In general, I’m not in favor of academic boycotts or limiting study opportunities. My initial thinking about this was I’d like our students to have an opportunity to go over and see things for themselves. But Lara’s case changed my mind about that. I don’t want our students to possibly be detained for their political views.”

Another Pitzer professor, Albert Wachtel, argued that the opposite lesson should be taken from Alqasem’s case. “This student was admitted and is studying in Jerusalem,” said Wachtel, a professor of creative studies. “If she’s an indication of anything, she’s an indication that democracy works in Israel and that its courts balance things out and undertake to negate political decisions which it regards as unacceptable. That’s big. That’s very desirable.”

Segal countered that the Supreme Court decision didn't overturn the law restricting entry to foreign advocates of boycotts; rather the court concluded that Alqasem herself did not meet the bar for refusing entry. “Clearly, we have a problem at the college if we have a program that we list as approved and student A chooses it and can go and student B chooses it and student B has been a prominent member of Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine and cannot go into the program. Then we are approving a program that discriminates on the basis of perfectly legitimate political speech,” Segal said.

The vote by Pitzer faculty was condemned Tuesday by the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that tracks what it views as anti-Israel actions on campuses and opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“The Pitzer faculty’s attempt to implement academic BDS on campus and subvert the educational opportunities and academic freedom of their own U.S. colleagues and students is absolutely reprehensible,” the group’s executive director, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, said in a written statement. “These Pitzer faculty members have abrogated their most basic professional responsibility -- to promote the academic welfare of their students.”

AMCHA called on Pitzer president Melvin L. Oliver to “immediately condemn this action and publicly commit to ensuring that no Pitzer student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel and that faculty will not be permitted to implement an academic boycott of Israel at Pitzer.”

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