In a historic move, the College Council at Pitzer College voted to suspend a study abroad in Israel program on 14 March.
However, college president Melvin Oliver vetoed the measure just hours later, a decision a faculty member said was “a betrayal of [Pitzer’s] core values” and one that displayed “contempt for the college’s democratic process.”
The council, a legislative body that includes staff, faculty and students, passed the measure conditionally suspending the partnership with Haifa University by 67-28 votes, with eight abstentions.
The move followed a faculty vote to suspend the program last fall, citing Israel’s discriminatory entry restrictions based on ancestry and political speech.
In that vote, faculty called on the university to curtail the program until Israel “adopts policies granting visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a fully equal basis” as it does with Israeli institutions. They also rejected the administration’s move to nullify a 2017 resolution passed by the Pitzer student senate in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
Oliver’s veto of the 14 March council vote “shows that his deeply personal commitment to protect Israeli apartheid is more important to him than the best interests of the college,” Dan Segal, a Pitzer professor and a sponsor of the resolution, told The Electronic Intifada.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said Oliver’s move was “a shameful precedent” and “a desperate attempt to shield Israel’s far-right regime of apartheid and occupation from accountability and a show of extraordinary disdain for the Pitzer community.”
“In the history of the college, there’s never been a veto of the student senate, and there was over BDS,” Segal said. “There’s never been any veto of the college council, and there was over [the study abroad in Israel program].”
“The only two vetoes in the history of the college have come over Palestinian rights issues,” he added.
Pitzer is one of several campuses in the Claremont Colleges consortium in southern California.
Members of Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) condemned Oliver’s veto, saying they will continue to organize to suspend the program with Haifa University while demanding that the president reverse his decision.
A petition to support the council’s vote to suspend the Israel program has gathered 900 signatures, including dozens of prominent anti-racist professors and scholars such as Judith Butler, Richard Falk, Steven Salaita and Robin D.G. Kelley, more than a dozen US campus organizations and hundreds of students and alumni.
Protesting the college president’s veto, student groups created messages in support of the Haifa study abroad suspension around campus in chalk.
Threats and propaganda
In the weeks leading up to the College Council’s vote, Segal said he was smeared by anonymous anti-Palestinian groups which accused him of anti-Semitism, while posters appeared on campus equating the support by Students for Justice in Palestine and their allies for the suspension of the Haifa program with support for terrorism.
Such tactics “expose our students and their allies to the possibility of violence, and the trope of identifying students as such is Islamophobic,” Segal told The Electronic Intifada.
He said he called on the administration and the faculty executive committee to denounce the posters as hate speech and incitement to violence, but the administration has so far stayed silent.
Leading up to the vote, the Israel on Campus Coalition, a right-wing Israel lobby group, produced a video promoting Haifa University as a “diverse” and inclusive institution that should be protected against a boycott at all costs.
Students for Justice in Palestine said that the ICC’s video, which features Pitzer students answering vague questions about the Haifa University suspension campaign, was “unethical propaganda” and a “disingenuous distortion of student opinion.”
In a statement from Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the students featured in the video said she was “approached by people who appeared to be students” and asked what she would do if she was told she could not study abroad in her preferred country of Spain.
“At no point during this time did these people mention Israel or Haifa to me,” the student said.
“They took my answers and used them out of context for their own propaganda.”
In Al Jazeera’s leaked undercover documentary The Lobby–USA, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition claimed that the group had a multi-million dollar budget for “research” for smear campaigns against activists.
Jacob Baime also admitted that the ICC coordinated with Israel’s strategic affairs ministry. He called these campaigns “psychological warfare.”
The Israel study abroad program remains “only available to some,” noted SJP, adding that during the Nakba, tens of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Haifa alone and those refugees still cannot return home.
“Descendants of these refugees who study at the Claremont Colleges would likely be barred from this study abroad program,” SJP added.
Israel suppression playbook
In addition, a mobile phone app, Act.IL, which was created and funded by the Israeli government and prominent Israel lobby groups, had been directing its users in the weeks prior to the Pitzer vote to spread propaganda materials intending to disrupt and smear Palestinian rights campaigners at the college:
A petition and video promoted by the app were created by a new Facebook group called “Students for Academic Freedom,” a page that has fewer than a dozen “likes” and has focused its handful of posts solely on the Pitzer vote.
Following the president’s veto, the app has incentivized its users to send multiple emails to the college president, thanking him for vetoing the college council’s democratic vote.
The attempts by Pitzer’s president and others to thwart the council’s vote “come straight out of the Israel suppression playbook,” according to Liz Jackson, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal.
Along with the nullification of the 2017 student vote in support of BDS, the president’s veto is “only the latest in a long string of incidents where Pitzer has applied discriminatory treatment to restrict support for Palestine,” Jackson added.
In 2015, under pressure from Israel supporters, university administrators threatened to sanction students over their plan to construct a mock wall on campus in order to bring attention to Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
The 60-foot-long wall was a replica of Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank.