PZ Senate Holds Listening Session for Israel/Palestine Working Group

Editor’s note: To prevent contributing to the doxxing of community members that has resulted in death threats and blacklisting, TSL has honored requests from students who wish to remain anonymous when speaking just to the Pitzer College community.

Pitzer College’s Israel/Palestine working group made its first public appearance last Friday when all but two members were joined by 5C community members for a “listening session” to guide their work.

The working group, comprised of two faculty members, two students, two trustees, and one staff member, was formed in response to the Pitzer College Board of Trustees’ June decision to nullify a Senate amendment that barred the use of student activities fees to buy products from certain organizations associated with Israel.

According to anthropology professor Claudia Strauss, the chair of the working group, the purpose of the group is “to model respectful ways of holding difficult dialogues, whether between proponents of divergent views about Israel-Palestine or among different Pitzer stakeholders about shared governance.”

The working group will not be able to enact official policies because it is a subgroup of the Faculty Executive Committee, but it will “study the issues, solicit input, and propose policies to be brought to the college for discussion and votes,” Strauss wrote in an email to TSL.

Friday’s session was originally scheduled to be a town hall forum about the June decision and its implications for Pitzer’s shared governance system, which some members of Senate felt was under threat when the Board of Trustees nullified a Student Senate decision. But when the working group was announced, the Senate executive board decided to “reframe” the town hall to serve as a listening session.

Much of what students spoke about focused on shared governance and the context of the working group, not necessarily its potential goals.

“What good are town halls like these when at the end of the day we’re told we don’t have any power?” asked Shivani Kavuluru PZ ‘19, a member of Senate. “At the end of the day, student autonomy is kind of a myth, and that’s not a message Pitzer College of all colleges should be putting out.”

Noah Knowlton-Latkin PZ ‘17, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, had a similar take.

“The problem isn’t the decision, it’s the Board of Trustees intervention,” he said.

While “clearly the Student Senate and the student body are miles ahead of the trustees” in terms of progressive politics, Latkin continued, he said student autonomy was still the larger issue.

Another student pointed out that the Senate amendment was just a boycott, and not violent.

“If I can’t boycott, then what can I do [to protest] that won’t be portrayed as dangerous?” they asked.

After the talk, the student said the town hall was a bare minimum attempt at having a conversation about “a topic that we have been having conversations and dialogues about for the past semester.” They said that they expected the working group to have a tangible timeline and action points.

In a notable departure from general support for the group by faculty at the meeting, Albert Wachtel, a professor at Pitzer since 1974, said “the very existence” of the working group is “an anti-Semitic statement.”

Wachtel painted Israel as a country surrounded by states that “cut off the arms of human beings for having stolen a piece of bread.”

After the meeting, Knowlton-Latkin called Wachtel’s statement “nonsense.” Pitzer Student Senate secretary Kamyab Mashian PZ ‘19 wrote to TSL in a Facebook message that he was “surprised by the extent to which [Wachtel] appears to have misunderstood the intent and purpose of the working group.”

While much of the meeting was spent on this meta-dialogue, community members had recommendations for the working group on how to carry out its investigation into the trustees' decision.

Micah Sallus PZ ‘20, a student board member for Claremont Hillel, wrote in a statement to TSL that he hopes the working group can partner with Hillel. 

"Our student board believes Hillel can be a partner in creating a space for dialogue and is committed to being in communication with the working group to further these common goals," he said. 

One member of SJP who spoke at the town hall said SJP’s requests for the working group are twofold.

First, they want to see the “specific legal language” that allowed the Board of Trustees to overturn the Senate decision. Second, they want letters that were apparently sent to the Board of Trustees by activist organizations like the Zionist Organization of America and the Academic Engagement Network to be released to the community.

A through line of the discussion around the working groups’ role and eventual decisions was one of comfort.

First, the campus implications of the Israel/Palestine conflict were described as uncomfortable by both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students. Some students raised the issue of a “double standard” in the debate, and one said they felt “too intimidated” to take part in discussion.

Sallus said he wants the group to “focus on making sure students at Pitzer are comfortable living here,” and not to focus on resolving a dispute over shared governance or “making sure the trustees and students are happy."

Knowlton-Latkin responded that “from a Palestinian viewpoint, it’s very discomforting to know that the money that you’re paying to go to school is going towards companies that are literally profiting from killing your family and killing your people.”

Another student said they “see a hostile and divisive community here especially around Israel/Palestine,” but noted that “inevitably, what comes out of the working group is going to make people uncomfortable.”

“And I think that’s OK,” they continued, “as long as we as a school provide a space for silence … for the nuance and complexity of these very important issues.”

Strauss wrote to TSL after the event that although the listening session tackled some difficult subjects, it was a necessary first step and she was grateful Student Senate organized it.

“I was concerned by the students’ reports of fear and non-acceptance they have felt and the intimidation they have received, whether originating on campus or from outside groups and regardless of what position they might have expressed,” she wrote.