Pitzer president decries motion to suspend Israel study abroad program

Pitzer College Council hosted a meeting Nov. 29 to discuss whether to suspend Pitzer’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa in Israel. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

Suspending Pitzer College’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa in Israel would be a “major blow” to the college, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver said in a Pitzer College Council meeting Nov. 29. The Council, a student and faculty governance board, is expected to vote on the motion at its next meeting next semester.

According to the bylaws of the Council, the vote will be taken as a recommendation to the president of the college, who will make the final decision on whether to suspend the study abroad program. Historically, these decisions are usually aligned with the recommendation, according to Pitzer Student Senate member Isaiah Kramer PZ ’20.

The Council’s discussion followed a Nov. 8 Pitzer faculty meeting vote, in which two motions encouraging the college to boycott Israeli products and the study abroad program were adopted. The second motion was later reviewed by the Faculty Executive Committee, which decided to bring it before the College Council for discussion due to contradictions over which committee was supposed to handle the study abroad motion.

The motion calls for a suspension of the University of Haifa program until “the Israeli state ends its restrictions on entry to Israel based on ancestry and/or political speech,” and ends discrimination in granting visas to exchange students at Palestinian versus Israeli universities, according to a Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) blog post.

“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. Why Israel?” 

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver

Oliver opened the discussion with a speech opposing the faculty motion, saying it would provide “paltry support for Palestinian rights” and would “foolishly alienate a large population” of the school’s community.

Anthropology professor Dan Segal, who brought forward both motions at the faculty meeting, disagreed.

Segal, a faculty representative on Pitzer’s Study Abroad and International Programs Committee, said Palestinian responses to the motion were “overwhelmingly positive” and that “Palestinians don’t agree with President Oliver that this is paltry support.”

“[The suspension of the Haifa program] is in fact completely necessary given Pitzer’s stated commitment to social justice,” Segal said. “Right now is when it is controversial, right now is when it will have the most impact, and doing the right thing is often hard.”

Oliver argued against singling out the Haifa study abroad program from others.

“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?”

Kramer and Claire Wengrod PZ ’19 are two of the Pitzer Student Senate members who proposed a resolution condemning the faculty’s motion to suspend the program. The resolution, which failed to pass an official vote without quorum present in a Nov. 18 Senate meeting, will face a revote in the upcoming meeting Dec. 2.

“The Pitzer College Student Senate denounces the Faculty’s desire to suspend the study abroad program at the University of Haifa and the Faculty’s decision to act unilaterally without regard to Student Voice, which constitutes an abuse of power and rebuke of Pitzer’s tradition of shared governance,” the resolution states.

In an email sent to Segal as well as numerous students, faculty, and staff, Kramer wrote, “I have a career after Pitzer College, and I do not want to be handcuffed to your anti-Israel political agenda.”

Kramer said the faculty meeting was “very controversial,” and that half the faculty had left before the study abroad motion was introduced, which occurred past the scheduled duration of the meeting.

In an email to the student body, Pitzer Student Senate also said the resolution “eliminates student learning opportunities.”

Lea Kayali PO ’19, a member of SJP, studied for three months on a tourist visa in the West Bank, but was unable to receive a student visa or legal credits for her studies.

“That language [of the Student Senate resolution] when I read it felt, put blatantly, pretty dishonest,” Kayali said. “Students that are trying to study in Palestine, students of Palestinian backgrounds, students that hold passports in many different Arab states — all of those students already are being denied equal opportunity of education.”

In a statement to Haaretz, the University of Haifa said “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 factor.”

In fact, the university said Israel’s commitment to an open and inclusive society “is no more evident than on the University of Haifa campus.”

All four of the other Claremont Colleges currently have study abroad programs in Israel, according to their study abroad websites. All schools but Pomona College partner directly with the University of Haifa.

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