Pitzer College Council votes to suspend Israel study abroad program at University of Haifa

Students cheer the Pitzer College Council’s decision to suspend the college’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa in Israel after the College Council meeting adjourned Thursday. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

The Pitzer College Council voted 67-28 Thursday to suspend the college’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa in Israel.

The controversial decision has been more than a year in the making, and picked up steam when Pitzer’s faculty voted to suspend the program in November. The vote of the College Council, a governance body of students, faculty and staff, will now be sent as a recommendation to Pitzer President Melvin Oliver, who has the final say.

Oliver had no comment directly following the vote, but said he would make the final decision “as soon as possible.” Pitzer presidents have historically honored College Council decisions, according to Pitzer Student Senate member Isaiah Kramer PZ ’20.

Hundreds of students and onlookers packed the meeting in the Founders Room of McConnell Center, and many let loose a raucous cheer after the vote was announced.

The motion that passed was an amended motion brought forward by Faculty Executive Committee chair Claudia Strauss and professor Dan Segal, and lays out a more general policy that could lead to Pitzer suspending other study abroad programs in countries that restrict entry on the basis of either legally protected political speech or race or ancestry.

Under this resolution, the FEC can initiate a case study of any program violating the aforementioned policies before having Pitzer College Council vote on its suspension.

In November, Oliver responded to a previous resolution that specifically targeted Haifa, rather than creating a policy for all study abroad programs, by saying suspending the program would be a “major blow” to the college.

“Why would we not suspend our program with China? 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,” Oliver asked. “Why Israel?”

The motion does not ban individual students from petitioning to go to Haifa or other programs matching the criteria specified above.

“As this motion addresses Pitzer approved study-abroad programs, individual students will still be able to petition to go to non-approved programs anywhere in the world, not excepting Israel,” the amended motion said.

If Oliver upholds Thursday’s vote, the policy would immediately be applied to the University of Haifa. Other programs would have to be examined before they could be suspended; the Haifa study abroad program was examined in a working group in 2017 and 2018.

Segal, who initially proposed the move in a faculty meeting last November, was choking back tears. He praised the College Council’s decision.

“Today’s vote will send a historic message to the Israeli state and to Jewish Israeli society that they no longer have unconditional support from Americans for their oppression of their Palestinian sisters and brothers and when they understand that, they will negotiate … the endgame here is the plausible path to peace,” he said.

Rabbi Daniel Shapiro, the 5C Jewish chaplain, condemned the decision in a post on Claremont Hillel’s Facebook page, calling it “anathema to Pitzer’s core values.

“We are gravely disappointed by the council’s vote to make Pitzer the first school in North America to boycott an Israeli academic institution,” Shapiro said in the statement. “This is a violation of what universities should stand for — the opportunity to study and learn across boundaries without political constraints.”

He added that the decision will “damage Pitzer’s reputation and its standing in the academic community.”

Immediately following the announcement of the vote count, Segal shouted “peace and love for all in Palestine and Israel.” Groups of students also started chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Pitzer Student Senate Vice President Clint Isom PZ ’20, who is running for senate president, said, “I think it’s a positive thing. I just worry about the fact that it will get vetoed, because that is a possibility.”

He said he has “no idea” if Oliver will veto the motion, but “it’s a possibility.”

Kramer, the other presidential candidate, said, “I’m just glad that we have a consensus among our community, it was pretty overwhelming to be there and I don’t know what comes next, so we’ll see.”

Kramer had originally proposed a failed Pitzer Senate resolution that condemned the faculty’s motion to suspend the Haifa program. During the Pitzer Senate presidential debate he said he wanted a “universal standard” to be applied to all study abroad programs.

Many students at the meeting read statements from Palestinian students in Haifa and Claremont, and said those students chose not to attend the meeting out of fear of retaliation. Several Jewish students also spoke out in favor of the motion.

Strauss said she was expecting the council to vote in favor of suspending the Haifa program. She praised the student speakers, and thought “the speakers who were able to give voice to Palestinians were very moving and very effective.”

She also praised Jewish students who spoke out in favor of the motion.

“I was so proud of the members of this group today who said ‘I’m a Jew, my Jewish values are what compel me to vote in favor of what we stand for, for the values we care about — not just thinking for ourselves, but thinking of justice for all people,’” she said. “For me, as a Jew, this is what I learned, what I took from my tradition — a concern for social justice.”

Shortly after the meeting began, senator Brendan Schultz PZ ’19 proposed a motion to appeal the FEC’s decision to limit the number of student senators allowed to vote at the meeting to 32.

Senator Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21 called the limit a “remarkably illegitimate attempt” to restrict student input in the decision.

“We are a community that has the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” she said.

The motion passed, allowing the 36 student senators present at the meeting to vote. Senate President Shivani Kavuluru PZ ’19 also proposed a motion to allow the 15 staff members on the council to vote, which passed as well.

Mike Donahue, director of Pitzer Programs and Intercultural Education, said the issue was not an academic issue, but a political issue, and that the entire staff deserved to vote.

“We are impacted as much if not more than faculty,” he said, describing the hundreds of threatening and harassing phone calls received by the Pitzer Advancement office and study abroad offices leading up to the vote.

Many people expressed their satisfaction with the shared governance element of the council’s decision.

“This entire process has demonstrated the value of shared governance that we hold in our community and how members of various groups stick up for each other to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard at the table,” Schultz PZ ’19 said.

Kavuluru agreed.

“These are the moments I want to be part of, and I’m so lucky that I got to witness this under my time as president,” she said. “This is what shared governance looks like.”

Pitzer alumni also attended a rally that was held before the vote outside of the McConnell Center.

“I’m really, really happy that a lot of our Jewish brothers and sisters stood with us, which we really needed,” Dianne Shammas PZ ’75 said. “I can’t wait to give the news because it just made my day.”

Following the vote, several groups quickly responded online to express dissent for the decision and appeal to Oliver.

AMCHA Initiative, an organization “dedicated to combating anti-Semitism” at U.S. colleges and universities, issued a statement by its co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. The statement declared the council decision an “academic abomination” and accused Pitzer of “prioritizing politics over students.”

“Academic boycotts violate the rights of students and faculty on U.S. campuses, and this precedent-setting vote is frightening,” the statement said. “Fortunately, the buck stops with Pitzer President Oliver who clearly understands this.”

The college’s board of trustees blocked a student senate motion last year involving a boycott of products from certain companies tied to Israel.

Board Chair Shahan Soghikian PZ ’80 said in an email to students last year that he expected the senate to remain neutral in “determining the organizations [Pitzer] recognizes and funds, the amount of funding allocated to each organization, and any restrictions imposed on such funds.”

Laney Pope contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated stated that Segal shouted “Peace and love for all in Palestine” instead of “Peace and love for all in Palestine and Israel.” TSL regrets this error.
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