OPINION: The disposability of brown and black student organizing

Three painted signs explain why people should participate in the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel
A series of murals in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel were put up outside the McConnell Center this week. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver’s unilateral dismissal of Pitzer’s College Council vote to conditionally suspend its study abroad program with the University of Haifa is a slap in the face to shared governance and a shameful stain on Pitzer’s legacy.

Most importantly, it demonstrates a callous disregard for Palestinian, Middle Eastern and Muslim students.

It’s particularly ironic that Oliver anti-democratically undermined such an overwhelming 67–28 vote within three hours — the first time in Pitzer’s history — after spending months talking about shared governance.

But this issue is much bigger than that.

The news of Oliver’s dismissal broke as a white supremacist terrorist gunned down 50 Muslims in a New Zealand mosque, and as Israel bombed Gaza.

It came a week after posters appeared in my residence hall, labeling student organizers as terrorists; it came after I received racist emails from fellow students. It came a day before a Pitzer faculty member against the suspension circulated a message to the entire school employing Islamophobic tropes about Pitzer’s own students.

I am an American-born Pakistani who grew up between post-9/11 America and Karachi. I’m well-acquainted with the indignity and insidiousness of Islamophobia — of choosing between two countries whose relationship can be described as tense at best.

I have felt anger watching the U.S. conduct indiscriminate bombing campaigns in my country, and I feel the sting of pain whenever I hear about violence in Karachi.

When foreign governments interfere in domestic affairs, the consequences become horrifyingly personal in ways I can’t describe for safety reasons.

What’s concerning about the University of Haifa program is Israel’s similar brand of colonial policing. Israel bars members of the Palestinian diaspora — and others from majority-Muslim countries or those who speak publicly against Israeli government policy — at ports of entry. In anonymous testimonials read publicly at the College Council meeting, many Pitzer students said they are racially profiled and excluded from this program.

What’s particularly obscene is that, while many other American students waltz through customs, Palestinian-Americans are prohibited from setting foot in their own homeland.

And the University of Haifa, despite its tokenizing marketing, boasts a shockingly poor track record of academic integrity, according to a letter from Palestinian students enrolled at the university who wish to remain anonymous to avoid criminal prosecution. That some call it the most liberal institution in the country is an indictment of higher education in Israel.

Here’s what public discourse about this motion doesn’t acknowledge: when opponents of this motion call for “preserving academic freedom,” they indeed are interested in academic freedom — for white students.

National discourse ignores that Palestinians are not uniformly Muslim — Palestinian Christians and Jews also face violent Israeli occupation. The Islamophobia industry benefits from branding Palestinians as Muslims in order to leverage the associated stereotypes.

Even at Pitzer, where “intercultural understanding” and “social responsibility” emblazons our admissions pamphlets, it’s not every day that an opportunity materializes to advance tangible change on a global level. #SuspendPitzerHaifa also represents a rare chance to send a message to the Israeli state, a clarion call.

President Donald Trump lends the Israeli state a blank check — as if former President Barack Obama didn’t — to encourage settlements to mushroom; for peaceful protesters to be murdered by the same army that trains U.S. police; for indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. The suspension is our way of letting Israel know that we as Americans are not standing behind him in unison.

Had it passed, the motion potentially could have kickstarted a movement across American campuses, similar to how students helped dismantle South African apartheid in the 1990s. As it is, the University of Cape Town’s Union of Students is now introducing a similar vote.

When Oliver says this campaign represented paltry support for Palestinian rights, he erases Palestinian voices. Let’s stop informing oppressed people what progresses their cause, and start implementing what they tell us.

I’m not talking just about Palestinian students at the 7Cs and Pitzer’s identity groups, but the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, U.S. House Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and so many others.

Instead, the president sided with the myriad anonymous internet troll farms financially associated with the Netanyahu government, harassing Pitzer’s brown, Muslim and/or Palestinian students. It’s typical intimidation — everyone from The New Yorker to the Electronic Intifada has covered it.

Aside from it, the misinformation I encountered before the motion was astounding. I pulled data directly from the Pitzer Treasury just to reassure people that this motion would not impact students who rely on financial aid, one of countless rumors I trained myself to debunk.

There are already two Student Senate resolutions in the works, condemning Oliver’s actions. One of them calls for Oliver to resign unless he reverses his decision, noting a disturbing pattern of institutional suppression only when it comes to votes concerning Palestinian rights.

The other interrogates the president’s disrespect for shared governance and Student Senate. A petition calling on him to backpedal has 900+ signees, including hundreds of 7C students and an impressive list of national academics and writers.

His plan to establish a study abroad program with a Palestinian university signifies nothing when Israel firmly denies student visas for this purpose.

And as UCLA professor Robin Kelley said at a Pitzer panel event in February, “this motion is mild.” It doesn’t come close to implementing full Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. But unlike our economic adversary China, President Oliver, Israel will hear us, because it is exceedingly dependent on the U.S. Your dismissal is far from exuding some sort of neutrality, as you frame it—it is anti-Palestinian; with such a wide margin, it is nothing but political.

The only exception being made for the Israeli state in the United States is the way we shield it from legitimate scrutiny and punish those who speak out.

Pitzer had, and still has, a chance to make international history.

Shay Lari-Hosain PZ ’22 is a studio art major from San Jose, California, and Karachi, Pakistan. He is a former freelance journalist and design professional and a leader of the Pitzer Coalition to Suspend the Haifa Program.

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