UC President Yudof to attend Israeli conference boycotted by Stephen Hawking

Fliers on the UC Berkeley campus during debates over divestment

Fliers on the UC Berkeley campus during debates over divestment.

UC Berkeley SJP

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking may be boycotting Facing Tomorrow, a high-profile conference of Israeli military and political elites, but one prominent academic who will not be deterred is University of California President Mark Yudof. Yudof will be part of a conference panel regarding “de-legitimization of Israel on the campus.”

In his role as UC President, Yudof has been at the center of debates concerning the right of students to criticize policies of the Israeli government, and whether it is appropriate for the university to divest funds from corporations directly profiting from Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Yudof has been widely criticized over some of his stances in the course of these debates. On 9 July 2012, an Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion convened by Yudof released a report characterizing students’ criticism of Israeli policies as manifestations of anti-Jewish bigotry. The report, which purported to represent the Jewish experience on UC campuses, was quickly rebuked by members of UC Jewish community, who published a detailed critique, as well as leading civil rights groups. Yudof has raised additional eyebrows by failing to respond to incidents of bias directed against other groups of students, such as remarks by UC Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin accusing Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association of having “ties to terrorist organizations.”

In response to student proposals that the university cease investing funds in companies directly profiting from Israel’s human rights abuses, Yudof issued a statement outlining criteria for any formal divestment move by the university. The policy affirmed by Yudof marked a departure from the criteria utilized the university in the past, and would in fact have prevented the university from divesting from apartheid South Africa, which it did in 1986.

Seeking guidance

In an email announcing his decision to skip the Facing Tomorrow conference which Yudof will be attending, Hawking stated:

I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.

Yudof appears to have fewer reservations about Israeli government policies. A 2008 article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes Yudof as an “unabashed Israel supporter.”

During his tenure as UC President, Yudof has not only participated in, but actually led, trips to Israel sponsored by the hawkish American Jewish Committee (AJC) through a program known as Project Interchange, targeted at US political and opinion leaders. Yudof has even gone so far as to recruit other officials in the University of California system, such as UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, to attend the trips.

The late scholar Michael Bhatia offered a scathing critique of Project Interchange in 2003, describing a program that characterized by “ommissions and silences” and “ambiguous discussions” which “directly reflected the AJC’s view of Israel, while also satisfying their basic conception of ‘open’ discourse.”

“Through the repetition of one consistent track of opinion,” wrote Bhatia, “the few alternative viewpoints, presented either once or seldom, would be made to seem extreme.”

The content of the program was not limited to Israeli policy itself, Bhatia noted, but also included “broader aspects of the Arab world and Islam … broadly presenting contemporary Islam as medieval, regionally undifferentiated, anti-democratic, anti-woman, fundamentalist and jihadist.”

Yudof said that he “sought guidance” from the AJC in connection with the university’s debates over divestment in 2010. Yudof’s wife Judy is also affiliated with the AJC.

A sign of bias?

Last month, the issue of UC decisionmakers’ participation in one-sided junkets sponsored by AJC received new attention when the president of UC Berkeley’s student senate (ASUC), Connor Landgraf, declined to issue an expected veto against a new divestment resolution passed by the ASUC. That decision followed publication of an article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian noting that Landgraf had himself participated in a fully-funded trip sponsored by the AJC.

ASUC President Connor Langraf on a free trip to Israel

In a photo posted to his Facebook account, ASUC President Connor Landgraf poses beside a tank during a trip to Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

That participation in such a trip appears to have been such a liability for Landgraf raises questions over the appropriateness of Yudof even deeper involvement with the AJC.

Is Yudof being paid to attend the Facing Tomorrow conference boycotted by Hawking? The conference’s official website cites the cost of speakers international travel in an appeal for donations, so it seems likely that Yudof’s trip will be at least partially subsidized.

Messages to Yudof’s office seeking comment were not returned.

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Kudos to Adam Greenhouse for this excellent post. As a veteran engineer at UC I have followed Mark Yudof's presidency with interest. He started five years ago by receiving a 35% pay raise over his predecessor. An incredible fiasco with his housing cost the university hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now he is retiring after 5 years with a lifetime pension of over $250K per year. Meanwhile, during his presidency tuition at UC almost doubled. Student loan debt increased proportionally. In an apparent conflict of interest, Yudof is on the board of the private "Lumina" foundation which was created by the student loan industry. His wikileaks page has been carefully scrubbed of the housing scandal and other less-than-flattering information. I will happily buy a sixpack of beer to anyone who can add to some balance to it.

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Just FYI, Yudof's relationship with Project Interchange predates his tenure at UC. For instance, in 2007 he received an honorarium and expenses totalling $4,474 from Project Interchange. As chancellor of the UT System in Texas, he would have been required to file annual Personal Financial Statements with the Texas Ethics Commission disclosing such honoraria and other business and financial interests.

Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.