Pitzer College President’s principled boycott rejection

Ariel Behar

Haifa is known as a city of coexistence in northern Israel with a substantial Arab minority. But some faculty and students at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. are blind to this fact.

The Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) praised the Pitzer College faculty last November for passing a resolution calling for the school to suspend its study abroad program at the University of Haifa. The university hasn’t done anything wrong, SJP explained. It wants a boycott to isolate and protest Israel. Pitzer “has been consciously supporting these discriminatory practices” by allowing its students to study in Haifa.

The Pitzer College Council – a body that includes students, faculty, and staff – approved a resolution on March 14 that would end the study abroad program in Haifa. That’s a decision for Pitzer College President Melvin L. Oliver, however, and he rejected the idea that same day.

Boycotting the Haifa exchange program would be prejudicial and “will only harm the College,” Oliver explained, offering several examples to show how. It would violate the academic freedom of would-be participants. It “sets us on a path away from the free exchange of ideas, a direction which ultimately destroys the academy’s ability to fulfill our educational mission. I categorically oppose any form of academic boycott of any country.”

It’s also a bad idea for colleges to take political positions, Oliver wrote. A college’s role, “through its educational process, [is] to help its students determine their own positions and understand what actions each can then take to effect the change they seek.”

For defending what he sees as the traditional role for higher education, those pushing for the boycott demanded Oliver’s resignation.

The student senate is drafting a resolution arguing the president breached “the democratic spirit of shared governance of this College” and will be a less effective fundraiser as a result.

The Claremont chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which represents the seven Claremont area college campuses including Pitzer College, sent out a petition and launched a two week event in response. “Palestine Freedom Week” includes everything from programs which “tie Israeli domestic policy to white supremacy” to a “food appropriation workshop” called “The Theft of Hummus.”

Pitzer College is a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,000 students.

An event held last Wednesday, “Open Air Cages: Prison Abolition from Attica to Gaza,” claimed to work in solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and with the Black Panther Party in “rejection of Zionism in order to unmask the white supremacist and settler colonial projects that have worked to maintain Black and Brown bodies in bondage both domestically and internationally.”

“Students, faculty, and staff alike should be outraged at this flagrant disregard for Pitzer’s values and democratic process,” SJP wrote in a petition. “We will continue to organize to suspend Haifa and demand that President Oliver reverse his decision.”

SJP also cited “gravely discriminatory policies towards Palestinians and in a settler-colonial state that continues its egregious violations of human rights.”

But a quick glance at the Pitzer College-approved programs and exchanges for students lists study abroad opportunities in countries like Cuba where there is no freedom of expression, a study abroad program in Turkey where Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the trophy for most jailed journalists, and a study abroad program in China where Uighur Muslims are being held in concentration camps. The list goes on.

Still, it’s not surprising for SJP to single out, demonize, and try to delegitimize the only Jewish state.

Its Northwestern University chapter hosted convicted terrorist Rasmieh Odeh in May 2017. Odeh was convicted and spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for killing two students in the 1969 Jerusalem supermarket bombing.

After a terror attack left an Israeli officer dead in June 2017, the Stanford University SJP chapter shared a Facebook post criticizing Israeli officers for killing the terrorist.

SJP and its allies have had success persuading a few dozen student governments and other groups to embrace BDS against Israel, but thus far, they’ve been thwarted by people with the power to actually enact the policy. People like university trustees and administrators. People like Pitzer President Melvin L. Oliver.

That’s because their obligation is to their institution’s wellbeing – both in their endowments and in the principles higher education is supposed to represent.

A student newspaper, the Claremont Independenttook notice. “[W]e believe that an appreciation for all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian is essential to the intercultural understanding Pitzer holds as one of its core values, an editorial Friday said. “… He has made a bold stand in defense of intellectual diversity today.”

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