College president condemns faculty over anti-Israel motion

Amid the recent decision by Pitzer College’s faculty to vote in favor of suspending the college’s only study abroad program in Israel with the University of Haifa, the Pitzer College Council—a faculty and student governance board—held a discussion about the conflict during its Nov. 29 meeting. During the meeting, Pitzer College President Melvin L. Oliver criticized the faculty vote, calling it a “repudiation of Pitzer’s values.”

 Speaking on the faculty’s motion to suspend the college’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa, Oliver stated that “this [suspension] would be paltry support for Palestinian rights and a major blow to Pitzer College’s mission,” adding that the suspension would be “inconsistent with Pitzer’s core values” and “foolishly alienate Jewish and non-Jewish constituents,” including students, alumni, donors, and faculty. 

In his argument, Oliver stated that the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that students’ political values cannot be used to exclude entry to Israel. Oliver also questioned whether the United States Supreme Court upholding the so-called Muslim ban would cause foreign universities to drop study abroad in the United States if entry laws are the standard of deciding suspensions. 

[RELATED: Student gov alleges faculty ‘abuse of power’ on Israel vote]

The president asked why Pitzer should cancel its study abroad programs in Israel while maintaining similar initiatives in other countries with contentious issues.

“China currently has 1 million Muslims imprisoned in re-education camps. Why would we not suspend our program with China?” Oliver asked. “Or take our longest-standing program in Nepal where the Pitzer in Nepal program has been run for over 40 years. During that time they have had a bloody civil war that killed 19,000 people. Why Israel?”

“Pitzer College must continue to be appreciated for its diversity of political and socio-economic views,” Oliver concluded. 

David Moore — who was neither able to vote in favor of nor against the suspension at the faculty meeting due to his position as chair of the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) — stated that it is “unlikely U.S. ends aid [to Israel] because of this action…Pitzer will be negatively affected if this does pass,” questioning whether a “negative effect on the local community is worth [the] small chance of effect on a community very far away.” 

Isaiah Kramer, one of the Pitzer student senators who brought forward the student senate resolution that proposed condemning the faculty vote, stated that “everyone will be misled that this helps Palestinians; in fact, it’s an attack on the Jewish state.” He further called the faculty motion “shameful.”

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Kramer added that the impact of the motion would be “none, [except] it prevents students from studying in Israel,” and the “branding they give the school will affect the jobs students can get, applications to Pitzer, and whether donors give to the school....It’s one thing for a faculty boycott of Israel, another to pass this motion and [cause Pitzer to] become the school that hates Israel.” 

Claire Wengrod, a student senator who sponsored the student senate resolution along with Kramer, said that the “passage of the motion represents a threat to shared governance…[the] intention of the motion was for faculty to pass it and directly enforce it; only with outrage did it get sent to the College Council,” adding that it is “wrong that students are only now being brought into the conversation.”

Some faculty, however, came out in support of the vote to suspend study abroad in Israel during the meeting. 

Psychology professor Mita Banerjee, who said that she was in support of the faculty resolution, spoke out against Oliver, calling the president’s “actively coming out against it” an “anti-democratic opening.”

“I am tenured and can talk,” she said. “Most of those that are not tenured cannot speak out.”

Anthropology and history professor Dan Segal — who brought forward the faculty motion — stated that he is “a proud Jewish voice for social justice and for our Palestinian brothers and sisters.” While Segal did “apologize for not bringing students in more [to the discussion], the core motion is right and the consultation is a separate issue.”

Segal also compared this matter to ending apartheid in South Africa, stating that “foreign support of blacks during South African apartheid was essential to ending it.”

“Apartheid of Palestinians is funded by the U.S. government,” the professor added.

[RELATED: College: Prof’s refusal to write Israel letter ‘disappointing’]

“State of Israel and the University of Haifa do not respect the right of Palestinians to identify as Palestinians, calling them Arabs…[University of] Haifa is complicit with the State of Israel’s erasure of Palestine and Palestinians, and cannot even acknowledge Palestinian students in their public statement,” Segal said, referring to a University of Haifa statement in response to the Pitzer faculty vote.

Moore said that he has yet to address Segal on the issue because of “aggressive” and “bullying” emails and text messages he received from Segal -- even after requesting that Segal desist -- and that the relationship between the two of them can be described as “abusive.”

“With all due respect to Professor Segal, he has been a professor here for over 30 years, the motion he authored and spoke in defense of tonight is opportunistic and eliminates the only program available for students in the region,” Kramer told the Independent after the meeting. “As the Head of the Study Abroad Committee, he could propose a new program that allows students to study at a Palestinian University or write curriculum that better furthers intersectional learning; yet instead of taking proactive actions such as these, he instead proposed [a] motion that is anti-Israel.” 

A secret ballot vote by the council on the matter will take place in the spring semester.

After reporting by multiple media outlets across the United States and Israel, the president of the University of Haifa, Ron Robin, also condemned the Pitzer faculty vote to suspend its study abroad program with the Israeli university, issuing the following response: “The University of Haifa is highly disappointed that Pitzer College’s faculty has voted to suspend the school’s study abroad relationship with the University of Haifa. While we support the values of freedom of speech and academic freedom, we oppose the BDS movement against Israel as well as boycotts targeting any individual or institution on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, or other discriminatory factors.”

Robin rejected allegations by Pitzer’s faculty that the university was compliant in discrimination against Palestinians, pointing out that multicultural tolerance and inclusion is “no more evident than on the University of Haifa campus, where an approximately 25 percent Arab student body exceeds the 20 percent Arab population of the country as a whole.”

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the campus antisemitism monitoring group AMCHA Initiative, also slammed the move by Pitzer. Rossman-Benjamin argued that this severance of relations is “a larger part of a campaign against the Jewish state,” and the work of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), adding that “[f]aculty who implement PACBI’s boycott are directly harming and curtailing the rights of the students and faculty on their own campuses.”

Rossman-Benjamin also made a plea to Oliver to “act immediately to address this egregious faculty behavior that subverts the educational opportunities and violates the academic freedom of his students.” 

[RELATED: More than 50 NYU groups pledge to boycott Israel]

On Nov. 29, Rossman-Benjamin sent an email to Oliver, endorsed by 75 different organizations, ranging from “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” to “Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME)” and the “Iranian American Jewish Federation,” urging the president to condemn “[t]he Pitzer Faculty’s attempt to implement an academic boycott of Israel that subverts the educational opportunities and academic freedom of their own students and colleagues,” adding that Pitzer’s faculty have, as a result, neglected “the academic welfare of their students.”

Some Pitzer Student Senate senators also condemned the faculty vote, introducing a resolution calling the proposition “an advancement of a political agenda at the expense of students who seek opportunities in Middle East/North African Studies, Arabic, Hebrew, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the intercultural relations of Israeli and Palestinian ethnicities.”

One Pitzer Student Senate member challenged Segal—who brought forward the faculty motion—on this idea by arguing that the University of Haifa “[is] the only opportunity for Jewish students at Pitzer to feel safe in the Middle East because our other programs are in Al Akhawayn, Turkey, and Lebanon, where it’s very much unsafe to be Jewish.” 

Despite overwhelming evidence that these countries are epicenters of antisemitism, Segal denied the student’s concerns by claiming “[I] never witnessed any evidence of this; it’s hearsay, but we can document extensive discrimination of Americans and Palestinians in Israel.” 

Despite the controversy surrounding a study abroad program in Israel, Pitzer has approved study abroad programs with institutions in oppressive dictatorships.

Pitzer College is a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium, which also includes Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, and Scripps Colleges.

This article was originally published in The Claremont Independent, a conservative student newspaper affiliated with the Leadership Institute’s Campus Leadership Program. Its articles are republished here with permission.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @CmontInd