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Pitzer College faculty moves to suspend Israel program in support of Palestinian rights

Pitzer College faculty moves to suspend Israel program in support of Palestinian rights
A vote at Pitzer College in Claremont on a study abroad program in Israel is causing a debate on human rights and academic freedom. (Pitzer College)

Pitzer College faculty have voted to suspend a study abroad program in Israel, sparking widespread controversy over what is believed to be the nation’s first such campus action in support of Palestinian rights.

The program with the University of Haifa is tiny — only 11 students have participated since it began in 2007 — but its potential suspension has sparked outsized response from those who hail it as a human rights breakthrough and others who say it unfairly singles out Israel and denies academic opportunities to Pitzer students.

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Faculty and students on a college governing council will vote next semester on whether to support last month’s faculty decision at the small liberal arts college in Claremont. Last week, Pitzer President Melvin L. Oliver condemned the vote at the governing council meeting, saying it was a repudiation of the college’s educational mission to promote intercultural understanding.

But Daniel Segal, the anthropology and history professor who spearheaded the motion, said the college should stand against Israel’s restrictions on academic exchange, including a 2017 law to bar entry to those who support boycotts, divestment or sanctions against the Jewish state. The faculty motion calls for the study abroad program to be resumed only after Israel ends its entry restrictions based on “ancestry and/or political speech” and begins to grant visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a “fully equal basis”to those it grants for exchanges to Israeli ones.

Segal, who is Jewish, said his tradition’s ethics obliged him to support the human rights not only of Jews but of all people.

The recent faculty vote marked the latest controversy at Pitzer over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, the Pitzer Student Senate voted to bar the use of student funds for goods or services provided by five firms, including Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard, that the students believed were complicit in suppressing Palestinian rights. But Oliver and college trustees nullified the vote in what they acknowledged was an unprecedented move against student autonomy.

The Pitzer faculty also voted last month to oppose that action by Oliver and the trustees.

Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa, said it was particularly ironic that faculty chose to target the study abroad program on his campus because it is the most diverse in Israel, with the proportion of Arab students — 35% — higher than the Arab population in Israel at large. His said the university’s social mission is to create a broad middle class inclusive of all religions, races and ethnicities.

“We have Jews and Arab faculty and students coexisting and this seems to contradict the narrative about Israel as an apartheid state,” Robin said in an interview. “We hope we’re a crystal ball of what Israeli society could look like.”

Students at Pitzer haven’t made a lot of use of the program. None have participated in it since 2016, a college spokeswoman said.

Claire Wengrod, a senior majoring in political studies and member of the college Faculty Executive Committee, said the program should remain an option for students. She and other student senators are sponsoring a resolution to oppose suspension of the program, criticizing faculty for not consulting students first. The Student Senate is set to vote Sunday.

“I support students having the choice where they want to study,” Wengrod said. “I don’t think it’s right for the school or faculty to prevent students from doing it.”

But Lea Kayali, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at the Claremont Colleges consortium of Pitzer and four other undergraduate campuses, said her organization feels differently.

“We are really ecstatic to see the faculty supporting Palestinian students and all those effected by Israel's atrocious border and visa policies,” she said in an email. “For us, it is time that the college stand in support of students denied educational experiences in occupied Palestine.”

In the past two years, Israel’s restrictions on visas have sharply decreased the number of international academics at Palestinian universities, jeopardizing their programs, according to the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Assn. of North America. But the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that a student’s political views alone could not be used to deny entry for studying in Israel.

Advocates for Israel said they feared the Pitzer action could embolden faculty on other campuses to follow suit. AMCHA Initiative, a California-based nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism on college campuses, this week launched a national campaign with 100 other organizations to urge college leaders to condemn faculty who promote academic boycotts of Israel.

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AMCHA organized a similar effort in 2013 after the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.

“Curtailing student academic freedom and educational opportunities for political reasons is reprehensible and a very dangerous precedent,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the nonprofit’s director.

Oliver, in his remarks to the college council, said that Pitzer continues exchanges with countries such as China and Nepal with “significant human rights abuses.”

“We need to reject this restriction and double down on our engagement with communities we disagree with, whose political systems we decry, and where discrimination and bias are endemic,” he said.

Segal said concerns about singling out Israel should not be used to impede social justice.

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