How Israel buys loyalty of US university administrators

A Project Interchange photo shows University of South Florida provost Ralph Wilcox (second from right, third row) with other university administrators during a delegation to Israel.

Documents reveal disturbing details of a propaganda tour of Israel and the occupied West Bank undertaken by top University of South Florida officials.

The University of South Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has gathered more than 10,000 signatures for a petition calling on the school to divest from corporations complicit in Israeli occupation and human rights violations. The signature-gathering drive has resulted in the largest student petition in Florida history.

USF currently has no ethical investment policy governing its $400 million endowment and its trustees have yet to disclose which entities the school has invested with. With a full quarter of the school’s student body endorsing the petition demanding responsible investment and transparency, a deeply compromised USF administration finds itself under unprecedented pressure.

With momentum gathering behind the divestment push, local pro-Israel forces are mobilizing. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine “are trying to de-legitimize the state of Israel through falsehoods, half-truths and blatant lies,” Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, who directs all the Hillel organizations in the Tampa area, recently told The Tampa Tribune.

“Somebody needs to call them out for what they are. This has gone beyond political discourse. This is anti-Semitism,” Rosenthal claimed.

Students involved in the petition drive told The Electronic Intifada that a 500-page book with the signatures was submitted to the USF Foundation, which manages the endowment. They will meet the school’s investment committee on 28 May to discuss divestment, an event they describe as unprecedented.

“It’s appalling that our university does not have a policy requiring investment only in ethically-sound companies,” said Ahmad Saadaldin, former president of Students for Justice in Palestine at USF. “This gives us students the impression that our school values profits over our duties as global citizens.”

Documents obtained through a public records request reveal disturbing details of a propaganda tour of Israel and the occupied West Bank undertaken by USF Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Wilcox earlier this year. Wilcox is among the fifty trustees who govern USF’s endowment and will ultimately decide on whether to adopt the divestment petition. His tour was overseen by Project Interchange, a project of the American Jewish Committee that focuses on generating support for Israel among nongovernmental American elites, from commanders of local police forces to civil rights group leaders to university administrators like Wilcox.

As Rania Khalek and Adriana Maestas reported for The Electronic Intifada, Project Interchange trips have been wielded as a tool to undermine solidarity between Latinos and Palestinians.

The documents reveal that a USF administrator expressed misgivings about Wilcox’s participation, though not because the tour presented a potential conflict of interest. In an email to the American Jewish Committee’s Miami and Broward County director Brian Segal on 12 September 2013, Wilcox’s Special Assistant Stephanie Williams wrote, “I do not believe that [Wilcox] would be able to go on this trip as the dates coincide with the beginning of our Spring semester.” Without explanation, Wilcox embarked on the trip anyway, leaving campus in January for a free, sun-splashed vacation during what appears to have been a paid workweek.

Records of the trip show that AJC shelled out at least $4,400 to cover his airfare and lodging at five-star luxury hotels like the Carlton Tel Aviv.

Hasbara tourism

Wilcox traveled to Israel alongside seven provosts who had each vociferously condemned the American Studies Association’s boycott resolution.

Last December, members of the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions which are complicit in Israel’s occupation and other violations. The vote by the academic association, which has 5,000 individual members along with 2,200 library and other institutional subscribers, was seen as a landmark for the academic boycott movement.

Scores of university presidents denounced the ASA’s boycott resolution, and some, apparently, were rewarded with an AJC-guided trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The itinerary of AJC’s tour offers a portrait of a typical hasbara or propaganda tour designed to impress suggestible American elites with the image of Israel as a dynamic start-up nation perpetually yearning for peace while struggling to defend itself from intractable foes.

During the week, Wilcox and the provosts were shuttled to meetings with Israeli politicians, university administrators and academics like Asher Susser, a liberal Israeli intellectual who told the delegation that “rather than wait for Arabs … Israel should be shaped into a nation state of the Jewish people.” In between briefings, Wilcox and his fellow provosts were treated to top-flight entertainment and fare by their hosts, with meals at Miznon, a “gourmet Israeli street food restaurant,” then at the beachfront Manta Ray.

Towards the end of the week, Wilcox’s delegation toured Yad Vashem, a requisite stop for Western societal leaders on planned tours. Less than two hours after emerging from the Holocaust museum’s harrowing exhibition halls, the provosts were escorted to the so-called “hill of shame” overlooking the occupied Gaza Strip. There, the director of the southern town of Sderot’s security department briefed the group on the myriad threats emanating from the besieged coastal territory.

While advised to avoid forays outside the guided tour, Wilcox’s delegation was able to meet with a carefully selected cast of Palestinians on both sides of the so-called Green Line, the armistice line marking the boundary between present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank. Among them was Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian writer whose unabashed support for Israel’s policies towards occupied Palestinians earned him a fellowship at the Gatestone Institute, a neoconservative think tank based in New York City.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the tourists visited the office of pollster Khalil Shikaki as well as Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority negotiator who has been a near-permanent feature of the US-led peace process.

Withering criticism

Back in Florida, USF President Judy Genshaft has been a vociferous advocate of collaboration between her university and Israeli institutions. As USF undergraduate and SJP member Omar Erchid reported for Mondoweiss, Genshaft is the co-manager of a family foundation that invests in Israeli banks that finance illegal settlement activities. A veteran of at least 25 trips to Israel, including one with Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, she joined other presidents of major universities in condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott referendum.

Genshaft’s pro-Israel activism earned her a Tree of Life award from the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental Israeli entity that has nonprofit status in the United States and helps drive illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and engages in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Bedouins and other Palestinians in present-day Israel.

While accusing the American Studies Association of violating sacrosanct academic freedoms for its endorsement of the Palestinian boycott call, Genshaft’s own record on the subject has been met with withering criticism. As Erchid noted on Mondoweiss, her firing of former USF professor of computer science Sami Al-Arian when he was accused of terror financing charges earned her condemnations from the USF Faculty Senate, the United Faculty of Florida and the American Federation of Teachers. (Al-Arian was ultimately convicted of a single charge unrelated to any terrorist activity and awaits deportation.)

Ranked the 22nd highest-paid university leader in the United States, Genshaft has overseen an aggressively neoliberal program on campus. A month before earning a $166,250 performance bonus last year, Genshaft introduced harsh austerity measures, slashing library hours and implementing millions of dollars of budget cuts.

“One thing I want to spend a little time on is what we’re calling the new normal,” she said. “We’re going to need to look very carefully at all of our finances, how we’re spending our money, and make sure that we’re efficient and as focused on our mission as possible.”

Genshaft’s administration recently eliminated sick pay compensation for new staff hires, citing a budget shortfall to justify doing away with the fifty-year-old policy. Meanwhile, spending on her watch has increased in lavish fashion on functions that seem almost extraneous.

According to a state audit released in December, the school broke state rules in overpaying more than $200,000 to three top administrators while doling out $1.7 million too much to recently-fired football coach Skip Holtz.

After terminating Holtz’s contract several years early, the school paid him a whopping $2.5 million in severance. Currently, three of the five highest-paid USF employees are coaches like Holtz’s replacement, Willie Taggart, who earns $1.15 million a year.

In 2013, when USF nullified the results of a student body vote in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures against Israel — an act that seemed to contravene the most basic standards of academic freedom — Genshaft kept silent.

This time, USF students organizing for Palestinian rights are urging the administration to change course. “The school’s Investment Committee has a clear mandate for action. USF has a golden opportunity to live up to its mission,” Yasmeen Yousef, the president of USF’s SJP, said.

Who will university officials listen to: a growing number of students demanding ethical management of university resources or the Israel lobbyists wining and dining top administrators? Past performance is not an encouraging indicator of how Genshaft’s administration will behave.

Asked about this year’s push for divestment, she insisted that “we’re always willing to listen.”

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and best selling author. His latest book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013, Nation Books).