In November, the faculty of Pitzer College voted overwhelmingly in support of suspending the college’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa, setting two conditions for the resumption of the program. The first condition is that entry to Israel, and thus to the Haifa program, must be free of discrimination based on ancestry and legitimate political speech. The second is that Israel allow foreign exchanges with Palestinian universities on the same basis that it does for Israeli universities. Currently, the Israeli state does not issue visas that allow foreign students and faculty members to join Palestinian universities for a full semester, much less any longer.
Seeking to have the faculty motion rejected at the next step in our governance process -- a vote at the next meeting of the joint Faculty-Student College Council expected in February -- both Pitzer’s president Melvin Oliver and Haifa’s president Ron Robin have basically asked, why Israel? Isn’t the faculty being selective? Put simply, they have argued that the Pitzer faculty has a double standard when it comes to Israel, with the thinly veiled accusation here being that anti-Semitism underlies the faculty’s motion.
In point of fact, the faculty’s Haifa motion is consistent with past actions of our faculty. To note one important precedent, in 1990, the Pitzer faculty acted boldly to end the college’s relationship with the U.S. military’s ROTC program, precisely because ROTC barred the participation of our gay and lesbian students unless they closeted themselves. There is nothing at all Israel specific, in short, about the faculty’s objection to the college’s participation in academic programs to which access is limited by unjust discrimination.
So, too, it is not animus to Israel that has led the Pitzer faculty to lend support to the Palestinian struggle for equality. Instead, we are motivated by two general principles that provide sound guidance regarding whether and how to respond to cases of oppression in a world with so many such cases.
The first principle: act when one’s actions can have real impact. Isolated Myanmar is guilty of horrible atrocities, but tragically I can see no ready action that Pitzer can take that would do much to help. But Israel is different. Its illegal occupation of Palestine depends upon on United States military aid and staunch diplomatic support. Another obvious case in this regard is Saudi Arabia, which similarly could not continue its current violations of human rights if the U.S. government did not arm and support the Saudi regime in power today. If Pitzer had any relationship with the Saudi state and its institutions, these, too, would demand forceful faculty action.
Our colleges and universities have a special duty, in short, to respond to regimes that both commit abuses of human rights and depend heavily on American support. In these cases, our speech and actions as an institution contribute to public education about those regimes, thus fostering better informed and more democratic decision making about U.S. foreign policy. Our Haifa motion also sends a signal to the Israeli state and public that unconditional support for Israel in the United States -- support that disregards the oppression of Palestinians -- is now diminishing. And this, in turn, is precisely what is needed to bring Israel to the negotiating table and thereby end the unjust stalemate now in place.
The second principle: in contemplating action in response to injustice, listen to the victims, to those who are suffering, to learn what help they seek from allies. The people best positioned to tell us what we in the United States and at Pitzer can do to help Palestinians are Palestinians. Both Presidents Oliver and Robin have claimed that suspending Pitzer’s Haifa program is not really helpful to Palestinians, and President Robin goes so far as to tell us that retaining the program will foster “moderate” social change in Israel beneficial to Palestinians. Privileged and empowered persons should not, however, decide for oppressed persons what is good for them. What matters here is that, with overwhelming consistency, Palestinian civil society groups say that what they want from global allies are boycotts, sanctions and divestment. Those are the same nonviolent measures that gave Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress crucial support in their great struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in large measure by shifting public opinion and then policies in the United States.
All of this makes clear that, while decisions about when and how to respond to oppression are never simple ones, our faculty motion about our Haifa program is not unfairly singling out Israel. And it brings me to one final response to the question “Why Israel?” Let us reflect for a moment on the political work that is done by posing the question “Why respond to this case of oppression and not others?” If people ask this question to spur us all to work harder and more widely against oppression, then asking it is humane and necessary. But if they ask it to derail a course of action that holds real promise of diminishing oppression in our world and time, then asking it is shameful. My final response to the two presidents is thus to ask them in turn, “Why did you pose this question here and now?”
As a proud Jew, I know well that I live in an America with increased anti-Semitism. But I also know that deploying false charges of anti-Semitism to shield the Israeli state from legitimate criticism undermines recognition of, and thus the struggle against, actual anti-Semitism. We need, in short, to end the double standard that is indeed present in regard to Israel in the public sphere in the United States -- the double standard that blocks, at every turn and by every means, the cause of social justice for our Palestinian sisters and brothers.